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Take the Non-Linear Path to Learning

Take the Non-Linear Path to Learning
By Amy Milstein

When did we start believing that learning must be linear to be valid? That certain things must be learned at a certain age before the next thing can be learned?

Hand in hand with that is the idea that “important” subjects must be revisited on a daily basis, year after year, in order to be learned with any depth. It is deemed irrelevant whether we have an interest in these subjects or not – they are required.

I wonder why more people don’t notice that life doesn’t work this way? Learning is rarely linear in nature when it is genuine, and if someone has a passion for a particular subject or activity, they won’t need to be told to practice; on the contrary you’ll have a difficult time keeping them from it.

For myself, my interests occupy me in waves. Lately, I’ve been on a reading spree. I’ve also been taking massive amounts of photos over the last couple of months. Before the holidays, I was sewing every day. Earlier in the fall, I made more hats than any one person should ever own. Over the summer, I went on another reading jag. It seems to go in cycles. And while I’m focused on one thing, I’ll do a little of the others. I always have a book with me, but there are times that I’ll get on a roll where I’m reading three or four books a week. During that time, other hobbies or interests get pushed out of the forefront. But they never disappear completely.

This is why I don’t worry when one of my kids becomes totally focused on an activity, almost to the exclusion of all others...even if it involves video games (like Minecraft). I know that this absorption is not counter to education, but is instead the very heart of it. At some point another interest will take hold and pull into the lead as far as time spent. The learning that goes on is not linear, but it is consistent.

And for those who argue that kids need to be able to focus on one thing (usually something they don’t like) for more than a few months in order to hold a job and succeed in the “real world”? I believe those people are looking backward, and not forward to what lies ahead.

Life in a straight line is drudgery. Excitement and fulfillment lie off the beaten path, in swirls and circles and crazy shapes – in following your gut, sometimes moving slowly and sometimes racing along. False starts and dead ends are part of the journey – sometimes a very important part.

Don’t force a linear education on your kids. Encourage them to learn in the method and shape of their choosing. Their lives will be richer for it.

Amy Milstein is an active member of the NYC Home Educators Alliance (NYCHEA). She and her husband Joshua unschool their two children, Maya and Ben, who were ages twelve and eight when this article was published in 2014, and who have never been to school. She is a native of Columbus Indiana, attended Earlham College and then dropped out of Grad School at NYU. The Milsteins are pioneers of unschooling in the big city. Their goal is to create an awareness of unschooling as a viable option for families looking for alternatives to traditional curriculum based schooling. You can read more of Amy’s writing on her blog

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