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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Conversation Education

I have noticed that simple conversation in our home leads to the most interesting learning experiences. Stories are told, thoughts are shared and questions are asked, which often leads to research, reading and further learning, for both my children and myself! This volume of natural dialoging diminishes down to next to nothing when a child enters school. I have heard it reported that children, before entering school, ask hundreds of questions a day. After they begin school, in just a few short weeks, the questions are cut down to a few a day, limited mainly to functional questions such as asking permission to go to the bathroom or to sharpen a pencil.

A school setting murders conversation along with conversational skills. It just isn’t conducive to a large class to allow children to speak and question naturally. There isn’t enough time to grant the curiosity of all children in a class, so the natural inquisitive nature of children is stunted when they enter school. When the kids are encouraged to have a dialogue, they are told what to talk about. They are given a topic and made to discuss and not stray, expand or branch out into other ideas. They don't have the liberty to initiate conversations that interest them.

I remember getting in trouble throughout my school years for talking to whatever friend was seated next to me. Before you imagine me as the unruly, outgoing class clown, I was quite the opposite. I was always shy, sometimes painfully so. However, I still had the natural aversion to remaining quiet for hours on end. So I would risk getting in trouble, just to give my vocal chords the exercise they so desperately needed. I later would revert to becoming skilled at passing notes when the teacher turned his back so that I could communicate on my own terms. Looking back now, as a parent, it’s atrocious to me that children get in trouble for talking. It’s a form of abuse. What would people say if you enforced these same rules with your children at home, only allowing them to speak if they raised their hand and asked a functional or important and relevant question? Wouldn’t that be construed as abuse? Yet it’s not only acceptable in school, it is required, and if your child does not conform on his own, well, then they’ve got drugs to be sure that he does. Wow.

Freely unschooled children are able to converse and question throughout the day when inspired. This doesn’t come to a screeching halt when he turns 5 or 6 as it does for schooled children. Not only is an unschooled child able to freely express himself, he is able to do so with a myriad of conversationalists. Instead of being stuck in a room with 30 other kids the same age, he is able to talk (and thus learn from) not only with peers of his own age, but also siblings of differing ages, parents, unschooled peers ranging in age, public schooled neighborhood kids (after 3 p.m., of course) and adults including family, friends, seniors, librarians and various other members of the community. The range of human experiences he is exposed to is unlimited. The conversations he may have in a single day have endless learning potential.

So how much loss does a child suffer from having unhindered conversation removed from his daily life? Well, if a child averages, conservatively, one hundred questions a day, and then is cut back to less than five a day (mostly functional and not inquisitive questions), what does that add up to throughout 12 years of school? Again, being conservative, I’m only counting an average of 180 school days per year, giving allowance for the summer months, assuming the child reverts back to his usual inquisitive self and isn’t still brainwashed into creative numbness from being in school all this time. It adds up to roughly 216,000 questions unasked, unanswered, unexplored. 216,000 conversations unspoken.

It's common in unschooling households for conversations to lead to other related (or unrelated) subjects, branching off like tributaries of a great river. There is no telling how many other conversations would have been spawned from those original ones. When something as simple and basic as the unrestrained freedom of conversation is given to a child, it's amazing how many things he can learn, how many passions he can discover and follow, how enriched his path and thirst for life and knowledge can be!

I am elated to watch my children experience life freely. I enjoy all the conversations I have with them every day. Many times it is I who learn from my children. My 6 year old son is always teaching me new things that he has learned by reading on his own. The other day I was reading to myself and my son looked up from his book and said to me "Mama, did you know that Roman wives used to use toad poison to kill their husbands thousands of years ago?" I certainly did not know that. He showed me where he read it in one of his non-fiction poisonous animal books. I asked him if he knew what Romans were. So that led to a little history background and a quick look at the atlas to find Rome. Little tributaries in the great river of conversation education.

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