Learning Through Filters

One of my readers emailed me privately to ask me about the “top-down”, “bottom-up” ideas I presented in an earlier entry. Her children are 9 and 6. Here’s the response I gave her.

Bottom-up and Top-down are terms that I used to refer to the instigator of what a child is to learn in the first place. For some reason, when someone says that they don’t make their children do school work, it’s often interpreted as the parent just stepping away and not doing anything, not giving kids any input about what’s important to learn and where to go. But that’s so not true!

Even though you don’t do sit down work and don’t do classes, you are a HUGE influence on what your kids learn. Basically, when “unschooled” kids are little, they are working through their parents as a filter to the world. They mainly rely on parents to introduce new things, and to draw from their wider experiences in order to find things that would be good for them. Even from the beginning of their lives, there are certainly things that children will discover on their own, without anyone’s influence, or from influences outside of the family. But the vast majority of what they experience is because you are their mom, and your hubby is their dad. And the stuff that you bring into their world will be what they use to then express their uniqueness.

As they get older, and start to gather more and more experiences on their own, and become more independent, using you as their filter will happen less and less until they are full-fledged auto-didactic and you are then able to step back and literally let them go wherever. When you can let them walk out the door and it’s totally up to them whether they come home, then you’re truly on far end of the “Bottom up” spectrum – the same place you are with your hubby, or your best friend or any other adult that you are close to.

Using the analogy of visiting a foreign country that I used in an earlier post : It’s true, we work together to decide where to go, what to do and how to explore. But you wouldn’t just give your kids a map then say – see ya! Even if they wanted you to. You wouldn’t let them explore a dangerous neighborhood. You would know certain things just wouldn’t be all that fun for them. You would be able to draw from your experience in the world to know that there are tourist spots and you could point that out. It’s still hugely open-ended and hugely person-inspired from all directions, but the kids are stuck with you. They can’t truly be independent in their learning yet. And they don’t want to be.

A true auto-didactic young child, who is working from the bottom-up, would be a child living in the street, who has to learn everything as they go, as they need it. Or a child who is at home, with a parent who only pays attention to them when they want something. Or a child who is catered to 24/7. But, I’d argue that a rich life without school, for little ones anyway, does involve a LOT of parent-driven activities. The difference between parent driven without school, compare to with school, is that the parent takes the kids to the water, but doesn’t worry if they will drink or not.

Actually, that’s a great analogy. You live in the forest, with your kids, and you know of many good water spots. You take the children to each of the spots because you need to get water. While they are there, they learn lots of great things about those spots. Some have yummy water, some have plants, some have fish, some are still, some are streams, etc. All this stuff they learn in their own way. But to even know the water spots existed, an adult had to take the children there. In addition to being led there, the children learn a lot from hearing the adults talk about it. And the adults point things out that they notice about the different spots. The kids aren’t quizzed on it, or tested. It’s an exchange of information. Bottom-up, top-down, a mix of the two.

Then, as the child gets older, they will explore the forest more and more on their own. They will discover their own water spots either through self-directed discovery, or from other people in the community who know different things. They will decide not to use some of the old water spots that the adults showed them and instead use their own water spots. They will show the adults their water spots and the adults will weigh for themselves whether those spots are indeed better or not for their own purposes and the whole family will decide if it’s OK to use that spot for the group (i.e. is the water safe, is it someone else’s spot, etc.). Until one day, the child is completely autonomous in where they go for water, and the adults don’t have any more direct influence on where they go.

Bottom-up and top-down is a way I was trying to describe where the learning situations originate from – whether it’s the learner or the teacher who is the one to instigate a learning opportunity for the child. Perhaps, I’ll have to re-think those nomenclatures, and think about using different terms to be more exact. But I wanted to make it clear that parents have a LOT of influence on their kids when there’s no school.

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One Response to “Learning Through Filters”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Ooh! I like the water spot analogy! Great way to think about it. And you are right…even when there is no school, parents do have a lot of influence on their kids! The trick is not getting set on a particular outcome…sometimes easier said then done!

    ~Stephanie


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