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Back to the Basics: Learning Starts With Curiosity

I can remember some of my favorite classes throughout school were electives. I’m not sure if it was the fact that these classes were not the regular classes or if it was my own interests…probably a little of both. Introduction to drafting, architectural drawing, photography, introduction to media, and psychology were all electives I looked forward to. Electives often made up for the classes I didn’t want to be in and also may have accounted for the majority of my meaningful learning.

I think the majority of parents recognize today that kids learn better when they have a desire to put in the work. I can’t guarantee kids will end up working hard on everything they thought they would want to do (e.g. care for a much desired pet or mow the lawn after promising to do it if they got a new video game), but the chances of their follow-through increase dramatically. You might consider an elective simply leveraging a child’s desire to “do” into an approved educational path. This approval of a child’s curiosity is the foundation for what is called Self-Directed Education, a framework for looking at learning that puts the student in the driver’s seat of education decisions.


Many people who love the idea of electives stop short of supporting a Self-Directed Education for students. They often argue that students need to learn the “basics” before being able to determine things they’ll learn. They argue that awful education gaps will emerge if students are allowed to choose their own learning (When challenged they are quick to admit that the current system creates egregious gaps in learning too). Many of these detractors assume that basics need to explicitly taught, that they can’t be learned and practicing while doing other things. Their assumption is practically dangerous and hurts the learning experiences of students across all ages.

First, what is a “basic” skill anyway? Second, do we need to teach basics?


Basic skills shift throughout history. There was a time when sewing with a needle and thread was a basic skill and doing an internet search was the stuff of fantasy. Now you would have trouble finding many people who know how to sew. Internet searches are a pretty basic skill! And researchers like Sugata Mitra have documented how groups of children can teach themselves how to use the internet with no previous computer experience.

If we want to remain focused on teaching the next generation the basics then I think a helpful way to define a basic skill is by looking at what the vast majority of the culture knows how to do—walking, talking, reading, etc. These skills are so prevalent that you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t have them. I don’t mean to imply that we all read with the same proficiency or that everyone who can read loves reading, just that to do much of anything in our world requires reading and people have many different ways of learning to do so.


We love electives in part because they reinforce what we already believe, we learn basic skills doing the things we love doing. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve met now who love to brag that their son used to abhor attempts to teach them to read. Then they started playing Minecraft or Pokémon and not only can they read but have even found books they like. Who could have guessed that giving a child something they actually wanted to read might have an impact on how well they learn?

A person’s learning depends a lot on their curiosity. It doesn’t matter if it’s conversing with your friends, learning a foreign language other people think is outdated, or playing board games with your family. All of these activities require participants to engage in practicing basic skills—that’s what makes these skills basic in the first place; they are literally everywhere.

Instead of asking ourselves, “How can I make sure my child learns the basics?” Let’s ask, “What basics do I observe my children learning while they’re going about their day?” If we can watch for some time and keep an open mind we’ll find that they are learning so much of what they need to know just by living and loving life.

This article was written by Philip Mott. Learn more about him on his website.

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