Freedom to Learn: Can Children Learn Without Being Taught?

Freedom to Learn Can Children Learn Without Being TaughtHomeschooling, for me, is not just about family relationships, or imparting the values important to us, or sibling bonding, or varied and diverse opportunities, or flexibility, though it encompasses all those things.

Homeschooling has opened up a whole new vision of what education really is, has exposed what schooling really is (not), and has virtually morphed me into a “real education advocate.”

John Taylor Gatto and many others are fighting the highly entrenched belief that children aren’t capable of learning what they need to learn without an “expert” feeding it to them. However, real observation proves the contrary and has for centuries. Gatto says,

“We don’t trust children’s amazing ability to learn and until we do, true education reform will never be possible.”

I largely agree with his thesis.

So, enjoy this excerpt from an article from Psychology Today that echoes the very “common sense” phenomenon (I explained this in Think Outside the Classroom) that we seem to essentially miss altogether! (Understand, by agreeing with Mr. Gray’s assessment here, I don’t necessarily agree with his worldview or even all of his opinions.)

“Real educational reform, as I see it, requires a fundamental shift in our understanding of the educational process. It requires the kind of shift that I have been advocating in the whole series of essays that constitute this blog.

For starters, it requires that we abandon the idea that adults are in charge of children’s learning.  It requires, in other words, that we throw out the basic premise that underlies our system of schooling….

The idea that children are and should be responsible for their own learning is the thesis that runs through most of the previous essays of this blog.  “Freedom to Learn.”  Children come into the world intensely motivated to learn about the physical, social, and cultural world around them; but they need freedom in order to pursue that motive.  For their first four or five years of life we generally grant them that freedom. During those first few years, without any teaching, they learn a large portion of what any human being ever learns. They learn their entire native language, from scratch. They learn the basic practical principles of physics. They learn psychology to such a degree that they become experts in how to please, annoy, manipulate, and charm the other people in their environment.  They acquire a huge store of factual knowledge.  They learn how to operate the gadgets that they are allowed to operate, even those that seem extraordinarily complex to us adults.

They do all this on their own initiative, with essentially no direction from adults. In fact adults can’t stop children from learning all this, unless they shut them away in closets.  It is not just a few special “geniuses” or uniquely self-motivated children who do this; all children do it, except a very few who have real brain damage.

But then, at school age, we do the equivalent of shutting children into closets. We force them into settings called “schools” where we deprive them of their natural ways of learning, so they can’t learn much on their own, and there we give teachers the task of “teaching” them.  So, of course, in those settings whatever the child manages to learn is very much affected by the teacher. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you force children into settings where they can’t learn on their own, then learning is necessarily dependent on teaching.

Children learn wonderfully without anyone systematically or deliberately teaching them, but yet, we adults do have, or should have, the responsibility of providing the conditions that allow children to take charge of their own learning. Real educational reform, in my view, is reform that provides those conditions.

The most important condition is freedom.”

Peter Gray, Freedom to Learn: Is Real Educational Reform Possible?



28 Responses to “Freedom to Learn: Can Children Learn Without Being Taught?”

  1. Renee says:

    That is a very interesting concept. Not easy to grasp when you’re a first generation homeschooler.

  2. Annie D says:

    I allow my boys (8 and 9) complete freedom in their schooling because I have to: they are both impervious to verbal instruction. Just can’t follow a direction, even one as simple as “touch your nose.” So they have computers and iPads and off they go on their own and they are as happy as can be. My daughter is 10 and we do more formal schooling, but not nearly as formal as what some people do. I struggle with letting go and giving her more freedom for fear she’ll never “fit in.” How does someone with no formal schooling get a high school diploma, for instance?

    I keep moving more and more in the direction mentioned in the article, but I’m not there yet. Feels like flying without a net.

  3. Amber says:

    Maybe I’m getting this wrong, but is this saying that there isn’t any instruction or direction in this type of schooling? I’m hoping not. I do appreciate the idea of more freedom in learning, though. Leaving kids to their own devices can be a bad idea sometimes, ha ha!

    • Word Warrior says:

      If you study the writings of these men (which are growing in number and authority) you will find the answer to be that, according to the evidence, children actually get more instruction the more freedom they have (just like when they were young), whereas our entrenched ideas can’t get past the notion of “feeding” them this instruction. What is being observed is that when children are able to pursue what interests them, their motivation propels them, their retention is, of course, much higher, and their interests make them far better learners than the “force-fed” model.

      Coincidentally, even children who have been allowed this freedom do exceptionally well if and when they decide to pursue a form of education that requires a more structured approach. There is actually a “school” modeling this hands-off learning if you’re interested in peeking at it… though I think it’s sort of silly to pay for something you can do at home 😉

      Which, by the way, is why homeschooling is being found to be so successful, even in families who don’t “look like they’re doing it right”. The reality is that homeschooling allows that freedom and more diverse forms of learning and in the end, it makes self-learners, even if their parents didn’t think they were doing the right things.

      Does that make sense?

      • Amber says:

        Yes, thank you :). I don’t know if I can quite get on board with it at this point, but I also don’t think it’s bad. The biggest issue I’ve seen, in my own person homeschooling experience (although my oldests are just almost 5 and 6), is that too much structure and expectations lead to frustration on both parent and children’s part. I appreciate the wisdom of seasoned homeschooling mothers.

  4. Carolina says:

    I recommend the free resource bellow: “Teaching Our Children to Teach Themselves” (

    • Erica says:

      THANK YOU for sharing this website! I just hopped over there and read some of the stuff they have and am in the process of checking it out further, but so far am impressed with what I have seen!

  5. Laura says:

    WHile I agree with the idea, generally, it IS true that children do need shepherding and corralling….otherwise toilets might blow up and other disasters…And along with that, I would say that it’s also true that there comes a point at which learning by whim has to be let go…and there are some things you must learn by simple grit and determination…and many children are too flighty to set themselves down and memorize things like the multiplication table (which is somewhat necessary if you want to learn algebra without every problem taking 45 minutes, or be able to know if you can afford milk for a large family;)…That being said, we only do “sit down with books” school time for 1-2 hours each day…and that is just to cover the basics, to ensure proper reading advancement and so on…other than that, they have tons of time to play, ask questions, and do things with us… And if you read about how lessons were learned in the last century, much of it was sort of by digging in…but the student’s lives were more balanced with other things…on the farms, the kids had chores, livestock, sewing, kitchen work, as well as play…and were more free to observe and learn that way…Whereas nowadays, kids are trapped in peer-boxes most of the week for most of the year…and have no work or active play to do…

    • Word Warrior says:


      We also still have “sit down” work and certain rote things we require. Honestly, though, as I read more and more of the “real education” and reform articles, I’m able to see that even some of those things (like math, etc.) can and are learned when more freedom is given. It’s basically a mysterious phenomenon. For example, how do our children learn an entire language (even the basic rules of grammar and syntax) without “instruction”? That’s quite profound but they learn a complex system because it is necessary for them and God has given them amazing instinctive natures to learn it.

      I think we forget or don’t realize, because of years of our own indoctrination, this mystery. Is it possible that a child could learn Algebra, IF HE NEEDS TO (that’s key) without earlier, formal instruction? I’m not personally sure, but I’ve read that it happens all the time.

      So yes, we teach the multiplication tables and I require my children to write (that’s a biggie for me) but I am losing more and more fear, trusting what God has miraculously given them for learning, realizing that there isn’t a “box”; each child may learn entirely different things (that’s a radical concept in our idea of education) and that’s OK, and even preferable.

      The more I read and discover and peer into the lives of the brilliant men and women of history, looking at how they learned, the more confident I grow with this approach and the more I realize how crippling some “schooling” can be.

  6. Charity says:

    Wonderful article Kelly!

    It’s funny….my children (all littles) have no idea what “school” is, or “grade” or any of those school-y terms. My oldest (just turned 7yrs a couple days ago) actually asked us yesterday if school was like jail for children. 😉

  7. Katy says:

    In our home we really take a mixed approach. We believe our role as parents is to make sure the opportunities are there for them to learn (if they sit in their room all day playing video games – and yes, we do know kids that could do this easily, they won’t learn much), allow them the room and freedom to roam and search on their own, give them formal instruction where it is needed (my child with dyslexia has to have time to sit down and focus on his areas of need, on his own learning won’t get him there because his brain can’t do that right now), and be flexible enough to follow their path of thinking as it happens (we make sure if they say, “what if”, even during a formal lesson, we follow that “what if” anytime it’s possible). Those paths that veer off of the lesson often bring the most learning because they are interested in the topic. Within those off-shoots you can incorporate just about every topic a school child could need if you look for the opportunity to bring it in naturally.

    So, our day has sit down time (rarely at a desk, often the floor, sofa, comfy chair, etc) with formal learning going on, time outside roaming and romping to learn all about God’s creation, snuggle up time reading a great book (to them or hearing them read it to us, each other, or themselves), and then a lot of time where they are learning on their own with what their imaginations come up with, things we have provided for them so they can spread their wings (science kits, art supplies, learning tools of various sorts). It has made for children that are learning very well, in spite of their many special needs.

  8. Shawnele says:

    Great post! Our family has run the gamut. When I began homeschooling 20 years ago, we did “school at home.” I bought the Abeka boxed curriculum for Kindergarten and we went from there. Later, our approach evolved to be less school oriented, but still adult-fed. Now, we take a more “open learning” approach. Mom and Dad still guide as parents are designed to do…but we a) want our children to be passionate about learning…and find that it is so easy for an adult to squelch that by feeding education inappropriately and b) we care FAR more about our children knowing and loving God, developing character, and hard work. That seemed utterly foreign to me 20…even 10 years ago. Now, I cannot imagine any education more important than the ones we’re giving our children these days.

  9. Sara says:

    Love this blog and especially this article! I was homeschooled so I agree with everything you say. Do you have any advice to share these thoughts with a sis-n-law and mil public school teachers?

  10. Kelly L says:

    Very interesting article!

    While I love the premise of it, I am not sure I could do it without freaking out. Silly, I know.

    The only thing I do kinda like it is my daughter (7th grade) is in charge of reading directions, comprehending and doing her work. I really do not ‘instruct’ unless she has a problem understanding. (3 times this school year in Math) I find that her not being spoon-fed directions has opened up her thinking skills in other areas; she takes it upon herself to figure things out instead of waiting for others to do it for her.

    She manages to get her school done in 3 hours or less and she feels empowered. Then she gets to study fashion, draw her designs, do art, practice pitching or batting or anything else she wants for the day. So I guess I am half and half, huh?

    I am going to look into this more, thanks.

  11. Erica says:

    I will confess that my old children (high school age) began in public school, until I got sick of teachers failing to comply with IEP’s that had been established to help my ADHD children and pulled them from traditional brick & mortar schools. Since I had NO understanding on the concept of “homeschooling” I chose to put them in a public online school. After a few years I began to see that it was the SAME old thing they got in the brick & mortar schools, only I had all the responsibility in making sure they did their work & that I submitted attendance (up until middle school I even had to grade assignments according to the school’s requirements!). I realized that it was NOT what I had in mind when I thought of homeschooling my children.

    So, I started researching and reading everything I could get my hands on about the subject. Now my 3 youngest (4,5 & 7 yrs old) are getting more of the approach of them leading the charge in their education. I supply lots & lots of “learning” type toys & materials. I make myself AVAILABLE when they want/need me. Letting them “do-it-themselves” has led to them WANTING to learn. My 7 yr old daughter actually taught herself how to read when she turned 4 yrs old….now reading at a 5th grade level! My youngest knew her entire alphabet (not just the song, but recognizing each letter) when she had just turned 3 yrs old. I have been amazed at how much more they have learned just by turning the reigns over to them! I am just now beginning to start doing sit down time for learning, and have yet to really have a chance to see the effects of this on them…time will tell! But I completely agree with this post, as I have seen first hand the differences in what the kids learn at what ages just by the different experiences they have each had with different types of learning. If I could do anything differently – it would be to go back to the beginning and do the same exact thing with the older kids that I have been doing with the younger ones.

    • Word Warrior says:


      That is so encouraging! I love how we keep figuring different things out on the journey and how the flexibility allows us to adapt to each child. Some children WILL prefer more structure and traditional methods; for those, it’s perfect. But to establish that ONE way as the only way is what is so damaging, I think.

      We have millions of children with millions of interests, millions of gifts and millions of possibilities. We shouldn’t have a hard time seeing, then, that there are millions of ways they can learn.

      We we will always fight the fear, I suppose. But like you said, seeing it “work” strengthens our belief in this new possibility of education. (I’ve never taught any of my children formal phonics and they all read really well…just another little (big?) example.)

      • natasha says:

        My husband was never taught formal phonics either and he still can’t spell. Phonics have been used for a very long time.

        • natasha says:

          oops wrong spot, sorry 🙂

        • Word Warrior says:

          I should have clarified the phonics thing…by saying I haven’t taught them formal phonics, I don’t mean they haven’t learned phonics or that phonics isn’t important. I fully agree with the important of phonics; what I’m saying is that it can be learned much more naturally than we think.

  12. Jennifer says:

    Fascinating points! In many areas, though, adults are very much in charge of children learning.

  13. Laura says:

    How much differing is there, too, Kelly, of education based on gender roles? Sometimes, I wonder if, [people with an axe to grind], despise the idea of gender roles (ie roles) because calling them roles sounds like fake, produced, not-really-natural spheres that we are “forced” into. Do you find that there needs to be training and education based on God-given, gender-divided responsibilities? For a girl, say, who claims to “hate” cooking or other “feminine” responsibilities/skills, should she be educated in such a way as to show that since cooking is a basic skill, necessary for the life of any family, she WILL learn cooking, and through slow steps, be required to learn proficiency in this or that, because it’s both practical and necessary, as a woman in God’s plan? I just wonder, because ONLY interest-led education, could be unbalanced somewhat…though I know enough about your opinions, I think, to know that you don’t mean to encourage children to simply follow their “whims” and call it education…Just wondering how much of raising each child up in the way they were meant to go (as individuals) also includes a vast array of skills and knowledge, even beyond what they think they are gifted in or have preference for.

    • Word Warrior says:


      I like that question–it’s a good one. Realistically, running a home should involve a whole family and even a boy should have a good sense of domestic responsibility when he leaves, though home is not his “sphere of domain”. But yes, I would say that in addition to whatever other interests a girl may have, it is expected and reasonable that the running of a home be in her education as much as anything else. Giving children freedom to pursue interests, as the article discusses, certainly doesn’t exclude them from responsibilities they may or may not be interested in. My boys may not “naturally be drawn” to cutting wood, but it’s part of their chores–and coincidentally, life-learning. So there’s a balance, of course, to it all, but the premise trying to be established through authors like this one, is that there isn’t a set curriculum that all children must know to be well-educated. Make sense?

      • natasha says:

        ” Realistically, running a home should involve a whole family and even a boy should have a good sense of domestic responsibility when he leaves, have a good sense of domestic responsibility when he leaves”

        Exactly. Do we forget that most Professional Chefs and Bakers and Restaurant owners are men? There are Male tailors too don’t forget. Also there are men that run furniture upholstery shops, and Men that sew boat canvases for a business.

  14. natasha says:

    We will be using a self -teaching curriculum after my girls know how to read and write, but it is a set curriculum. I think allowing ample time for children to explore and find interests is a great thing, but I personally don’t see the benefit of letting children take it that far. I played the flute starting in the 5th grade. I didn’t really enjoy it until high school where we were forced to play 2hours a day. After that first year of playing music I fell in love. I practiced hours a day after band class without any direction. I felt the passion, and I excelled. However, if my parents didn’t push me to do my daily practice from 5th grade to high school I would have missed out. Some things like music, and math are tedious in the beginning while we are learning the basics, but after that we can really soar and enjoy it.

  15. natasha says:

    I think when we expect kids when they are proficient in reading and writing to be able to teach themselves we will start to see a decline in stressed out homeschool moms. I can’t imagine trying to sit down and spoon feed 6+ kids everyday. There is the benefit of discipline when a child can manage their own studies. I think that discipline and self sufficiency will take them a long way in life. When you are spoon fed it takes away some of the satisfaction you get form figuring it out yourself.

  16. Dana says:

    I really agree with what Natasha had to say.
    Thanks, Kelly, for posting the article, it was encouraging.

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