Or an unschooled kid. Or any other alternatively educated kid.
“How do you ever learn anything if you don’t have to take tests?”
Unfortunately, this is probably the most common question asked of alternatively schooled kids. I’ve been fielding it (with varying degrees of irritation) since I was about eight years old. When I was a teenager, I thought this question was annoying just because I had to answer it all the time, and because it was irritating to always have to be the one defending myself (which comes with the territory when you flout the status quo).
Later, I started thinking that the question was annoying because the answer seemed so obvious to me that I couldn’t figure what there was to say. In my experience, what people really mean by this question can vary, but it’s usually one of two or three things. “What makes you learn anything if no one is threatening, bribing, cajoling, or otherwise forcing you to?” is probably the most common, especially from teenagers. Other times, the question means either “How do you know if you’re learning anything if you don’t take tests?” or “How do you know if you’re learning the right things if you don’t take tests?” All of these questions betray an underlying assumption that learning is an inherently unpleasant task that people will only do when absolutely forced to (and incidentally, that only school subjects constitute “learning”). I have never known how to address this assumption, because my own experience is that the world is such a fascinating, wonderful, tragic, surprising place that I can’t imagine not wanting to spend almost every waking second finding out more about it.
I’m still pretty sure that that’s part of what makes this question annoying, and when I sat down to write this blog post (which I have been struggling with for months), I thought I’d go through all the different variants on this question one by one and address the underlying assumptions. But today while I was revisiting this post, I realized that I’ve been having trouble writing this post because trying to explain my underlying assumptions is not what’s so annoying about this question. What’s so annoying is that, most of the time the people who ask it aren’t interested in the answer.
I started thinking about how people usually ask this question, and realized that most of the time, it’s asked in a fairly aggressive and argumentative way, in a tone of voice heavily laced with condescension and/or disbelief. And I think that’s because the question is really code for: “you are flouting one of my most deeply held beliefs about human nature, and I want to find a reason to dismiss your experience so I don’t have to change my ideas.” I start honestly explaining why I think people can learn without tests or grades to “measure their learning,” and the questioner usually starts arguing with me, apparently in an attempt to back me into some logical corner. (Since our chains of reasoning stem from totally different underlying assumptions, this is usually just an exercise in frustration.) Often, it seems that the questioner is looking for evidence that I am somehow a failure as a member of modern society, who is ignorant and uneducated. When that doesn’t work (and in my case, it generally doesn’t), I often get brushed of with something to the effect of: “well, you’re clearly a freak of nature because you’re so smart, and anyway you know nothing about the ‘real world’, and so your experience is totally irrelevant to me/my child/most students and therefore doesn’t matter.”
Not being able to come up with a good answer is annoying, but being casually dismissed as irrelevant to the rest of the world is disempowering, frustrating, and downright offensive.
So by all means, next time you meet a young person who doesn’t get grades or take tests, ask them how they learn anything. And then listen to what they have to say.