Friday, July 8, 2011

Can Children Teach Themselves?

Several days ago I shared a post, Teach Your Children Well, which elicited a rather impassioned response from one of our readers.  The point which aroused the strongest protest was this:  “Children can’t teach themselves.”  In her response, the reader challenged that statement repeatedly.  So, I asked myself, CAN children teach themselves?  

At the outset, I want to stress that this post is not an indictment of unschooling.  Unschooling is not the method that I have chosen for my own homeschool, but I see the value in the approach and believe that children CAN learn in a less structured environment that depends heavily on the child’s natural desire to learn.  However, I do not believe that children—even in unschooling homes—teach themselves. 
I know many good homeschoolers.  They employ a wide variety of methods and means to accomplish their end goal.  They all desire to see their children grow into adulthood as capable people, able to function with a high level of success.  And regardless of the method chosen, good homeschoolers are ALL actively involved in the education of their children.  That involvement does not look the same for all parents, or for all children.  

I used to say about my firstborn that I could put her in a room with no windows and no doors and she would learn.  Though the description was used to portray a child who had a high level of natural desire and aptitude for learning, in reality, a room with no windows or doors is a horrible environment for learning.  If placed in one, my daughter would not have learned much.  Yes, she was highly motivated and she loved to learn.  And at many points during her 13 years as a homeschooled student, she learned very independently.  But she did not teach herself.  As her teacher, I placed within her grasp the resources that she needed in order to learn and then I let her go.  Would she have learned what she needed to learn if I had not provided her with the resources and experiences that became her teacher?  More than likely, no.  Children cannot teach themselves.   

Parents are teachers. Siblings are teachers.  Books are teachers.  Experience is a teacher.  Curriculum is a teacher.  Life is a teacher.  If a child has none of these placed within his grasp, I would suggest that he will learn very little.  A traditional homeschooler may take a much more active role in teaching her children than the unschooler does, but the unschooler invests much in ensuring that her children are provided with the experiences and resources that are required to learn successfully.  In her comment, the reader who challenged my post stated that her children learned “with only guidance from herself”.  By her own admission, her children did not teach themselves.  She guided them toward the necessary resources and experiences that taught them.  Children may be able to learn independently, but they cannot teach themselves.  

She also suggested that “Maybe it is you that should go back and read history books about the education of Abe Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Thomas Edison…I doubt they used teacher’s guides.”  

I took the challenge.  After a quick google search, I learned something very interesting.  We homeschoolers often throw around the names of famous Americans who were home educated.  In many cases, these folks were in fact effectively schooled at home.  However, in some cases, we may be attributing the term “homeschooled” to a mere absence of formal education.  This appears to be the case for Abraham Lincoln.  Here is Abraham Lincoln’s description of his own education[1]
“My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age; and he grew up, litterally [sic] without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals, still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond "readin, writin, and cipherin" to the Rule of Three. If a straggler supposed to understand latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizzard [sic]. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three; but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.”
And this third person description was written by Lincoln himself for a campaign biography published by the Chicago Press and Tribune in 1860.
“Abraham now thinks that the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside of a college or academy building till since he had a law license. What he has in the way of education he has picked up. After he was twenty-three and had separated from his father, he studied English grammar--imperfectly, of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now does. He studied and nearly mastered the six books of Euclid since he was a member of Congress. He regrets his want of education, and does what he can to supply the want.
So back to my point from the original post.  If you homeschool, what is your goal?  To simply homeschool your children?  Or to teach them well?  Because, in fact, your children won't teach themselves.

[1] Both quotes from The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy Basler, and published by the Abraham Lincoln Association in 1953.  (


  1. :-) I knew you wouldn't just let that one alone.

  2. Good article. Parents have a great deal of influence over their children by merely existing. Choosing to educate them alone makes that influence greater and necessitates more care and attention no matter the specifics.

  3. Teach Your Children Well
    (Sing along…)

    You, who teach your kids,
    alone at home,
    you must be crazy!
    You must, work twice as hard.
    Your children need you.
    You can’t be lazy!

    Teach, your children well.
    Most lessons aren’t, self-explanatory.
    Some things, they learn alone,
    but preparation, is mandatory.

    Don't assume they know the “whys.”
    If they told you, you would cry,
    and then shake your head and sigh,
    because you love them.

    And you, of tender years,
    don’t know as much,
    as you think that you do.
    And so please, listen carefully.
    Your parent’s words,
    Are not just voodoo.

    Learn, your lessons well.
    School isn’t hell,
    that just slowly goes by.
    So tell, your folks your dreams.
    They’ll help you learn,
    how to achieve them.

    Kids can’t learn it all themselves.
    Mom and dad must teach them well.
    So buy your teacher’s guide and sigh,
    because you love them.

  4. Applause! Applause! Great job Arby!

  5. Love this! I have chosen to homeschool my children to teach them well, I provide my children with all of the resources needed, and I also guide them through each lesson, if my children choose to study independently then I allow them to, and still provide everything needed including myself.

  6. Laura, it sounds like you found the perfect balance for your homeschool!

  7. @Arby: I could NOT stop laughing when I saw you had put new words to "Teach Your Children Well." As I was writing the post, I couldn't get that song out of my head! Thanks! I'll be posting your song as its own post tomorrow!! LOL!

    @Laura: I agree with Arby...thanks for sharing! Kids need both. Sometimes they need to be taught. Sometimes they just need to be free to learn on their own. It can be a hard balance to find!

  8. :) I appreciate this article and its predecessor and definitely learned some things about Lincoln! Thanks!

  9. Linda:

    Our "resume" is so similar as to be almost eerie. ;) I am also a mother of four and I have been homeschooling for over 20 years (since 1990 to be exact).

    However, I don't quite agree with all your assertions and maybe I can only speak for myself but I think my experience and results indicate that I have something worth saying (and listening to).

    I believe some of what you are talking about is a matter of semantics. I have often said that I require my children to "teach themselves" from about the time they are in 6th grade on. Perhaps it would be better to say that I require them to "learn independently."

    In regards to my three older children - two of which are college graduates (one with a Master's degree) and the third preparing to be a senior in high school this year - I did not teach them math once they hit Algebra. I use Saxon Math at that point on and I believe that most of what is presented is done well enough that my children can learn it on their own. I was, of course, available if they got stuck. With my third child his older sister (a science major with a strong math background) was able to tutor him when necessary.

    I did very little direct teaching with my kids once they hit 6th or 7th grade. I did work directly with them on Composition. Besides a solid math background I believe homeschoolers should be able to write a rock-solid essay so that was a priority and the program that I now use (the only program I have ever liked after searching years for a Composition program) required a lot of hands-on from me.

    But the majority of my kids' time in those later years was spent working independently. I believe this is actually a huge plus considering that my children start dual-enrollment at the community college in 11th grade. They all three excelled at the community college because they were already used to having to be responsible to get their work done on their own.

    I also take a different view of Teacher's Handbooks. One of the best pieces of advice I felt I received starting out as a new homeschooler was not to buy the Teacher's Manuals.

    Most of the Teacher's Manuals for the mainline curriculum publishers (ABeka, Bob Jones, etc.) are written with the classroom teacher in mind. They have to focus on teaching children who are at a variety of levels and frankly, I find them to be more distracting than anything.

    Granted, I have a natural bent as a teacher. Nevertheless, do homeschooling parents really need to teach a concept several different ways to their child? Perhaps in the beginning, for some parents, the Teacher's Manuals can give them the confidence they need that they are "covering all the bases." But after a few years, most homeschooling parents have found a curriculum that is a fit and they know how to target their teaching.

    In any case, the one thing I can agree quite fervently with you is that to homeschool well requires a high degree of commitment.

    One last thing: the best "Teacher's Manual" I could recommend for any homeschooling parent is the book "The Seven Laws of the Learner." I read that book when my daughter was in third grade (almost twenty years ago) and it changed my heart and mind about what it meant to be my daughter's teacher. I review it on my website and can't recommend it highly enough.

  10. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! We're really more on "the same page" than you may realize!! I'm a huge fan of independent children were encouraged to learn on their own throughout most of their education! But without my guiding them to the learning materials and experiences, I'm fairly certain they wouldn't have learned much at all. Frankly, the statement in the Lincoln biography, "There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education," reminds me A LOT of my children...particularly the younger two. Without a push in the right direction, they would not have learned!

    Again, it's ALWAYS a pleasure to have you stop by, Anne!! Thanks for taking the time to comment!


  11. I want my learn to love learning and to to learn and think. Love your post....definitely has a lot of meat to chew on!