Taking Children Seriously

Child Seemed to be Doing Nothing Academically

Posted by Sarah Fitz-Claridge
on the TCS List on Sun, 29 Sep., 1996, at 01:21:59 +0100

A poster wrote:

Hi. I know I've asked for this before.

Ask as many times as you like, ----. :-)

My son is not doing much academically since he's not pursuing much that is recognizable as worthwhile or valuable.

I think it might be worth subjecting your theories of what constitutes “worthwhile” or “valuable” to the strongest criticism you can. Try to think about learning and education *much* more broadly than you are now (which is itself much broader than most home educators' view, I know).

He asked me to give him an assignment the other day. I did. He liked one of them, which was a study of TV programs and commercials.

Forget assignments. They are a complete waste of his time and yours. Possibly in asking you for assignments, he is asking you to help him discover what interests him. In any case, instead of designing assignments, try devoting that creativity to the problem of helping him discover a new passion.

He was watching male leads/female leads – major roles, minor characters, style of genre of program, and other things he was keeping track of. At first he was excited. He had figured something about the program Scooby Doo, and came to tell me that he had never noticed that the hunky guy and the cute girl were always a team, and that the hunky guy assigned the teams. The misfits or ugly guys had to be a separate team, and they always broke up and went in different directions.

He was excited. And then he quit doing it. So far, his interest has been piqued and then he quits. My giving him assignments is some sort of exercise in futility. First, I don't want to. Secondly, he doesn't like them when he gets them. He doesn't like to help figure out what they are or what to work on. And, he doesn't do them.

I think the reason for this phenomenon may be that doing an assignment takes the intrinsic interest out of the subject-matter. But it is of course quite normal, and indeed good, to start things and not finish them. It would be irrational to act otherwise when finishing no longer seems a good idea. I am glad to learn that your son has not adopted the very commonly-held (self-)coercive theory that one must finish things one starts.

So, what's the point?

Again, it doesn't seem like it is academic. He watches TV and plays video games most of the time. He doesn't go outside. He sleeps a lot during the day and is up a lot at night. The past couple of days, he's been up during the day.

Perhaps it is time to re-read my interview with David about video games.

So, I was hoping that some unschoolers would respond. I think he's relearning or learning for the first time things that are underneath the academic learning.

Yes. Or, as I suggested, he may be on the lookout for new interests, a vital thing which he is likely to be “behind” in. The capacity to find things one enjoys is a vital form of creativity, and one of the most easily damaged by academic-style coercion. Conventionally the evidence of this damage is systematically hidden (because parents and teachers make children spend most of their time jumping through worthless hoops) until it is far too late and they are adults who are mysteriously unable to find any fulfilment in life despite the “marvellous opportunities” afforded by their extensive education and extra-curricular activities.

You might find it helpful to think about why you are concerned about “academic learning” in particular, and what you are worried about in this respect. Would it be the end of the world if he were to choose not to pursue academic studies? It might be worth thinking of this as your problem, and looking at it with that in mind, rather than focusing attention on your son.

He tells me he's been thinking a lot, but I see no evidence of his being involved with this idea anymore.

As I have said before, thinking and learning do not necessarily produce any evidence at all, and it is a grave mistake to seek evidence of children's learning, because that can have a significant destructive effect upon the learning that is going on. The person from whom the evidence is sought is then highly likely to switch from addressing the problem he was addressing, to the new problem the teacher has introduced, of how to perform and provide evidence for the teacher.

Progress Report

Two years' later, the child referred to above, whose parents gave him the freedom he wanted, is a vibrant, friendly, interesting, delightful person who is intellectually engaged and a joy to spend time with. He still plays video games (and so do I).

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