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Real world learning

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

Nothing beats real life as learning territory. Not only is it filled with infinite possibilities, but it is inherently meaningful; we engage willingly with the things that matter to us in life. Most adults can identify with this. If I think back to the last few months and the odd assortment of knowledge and skills I've picked up, the experiences range from the relaxed and enjoyable (weaving), to the frustrating but necessary (Wordpress). Some subjects required reading a lot in order to form an opinion (iron stores in the body and how CBD oil works), and some required jumping in and just getting on with it (gardening and basic German). I engaged willingly in the learning process of all of these things because they have some kind of meaning or purpose in my life.

We're always learning, and children are streets ahead of us in their ability to digest and understand huge amounts of new information. The idea that their learning takes place within a certain timetable in a certain place and separate from the adult world, encourages us to see children as vessels to be filled with knowledge, five days a week. It would be more accurate to think of children as explorers or, as educator and author John Holt did, as scientists. They are constantly engaged in exploring and discovering the world, how it works and their place in it.

It's natural then that adult life is fascinating to children, and as they get older, they become more aware that it is the place that they are heading to. Adult life is filled with choice, power (certainly more than they have as children), and infinite possibilities. They can study, work, have a credit card, buy a house, travel, own a business, vote, drive a car...

Here at home I see how much knowledge comes just from daily conversations and activities that concern the 'real' world. Every day, bits and pieces of new information fire up new connections or consolidate with existing ones, making the children's whole picture of life richer. The wonderful thing is that this freely sought-after information has value to them and is held onto. This is not the same as me some years ago cramming for a maths or geography exam, then promptly forgetting it. This is real, meaningful learning.

There are many ways to facilitate children's discovery of the world. Every home is different, but here are a few things that work for us:

Current events Talking about current events covers a massive amount of ground. A little comment about a news item one of us has read can take us to all sorts of places, and often leads to lively debate (or argument, depending on the passions stirred). Yesterday, Cuba came up in conversation, which led onto Fidel Castro. That led to a quick Google check of when Castro died, followed by a conversation about Communism, and then the relative merits and failings of Communism and Capitalism. In fact, the way governments work and which is the fairest political system is a big theme here. It makes sense. Children have a natural desire for fairness, and they are concerned about how the world does or doesn't live up to their expectations.

These conversations are also a great way for them to hone their abilities to present a viewpoint and to learn to listen to other people that they don't necessarily agree with. It's not always easy. Some of us here are more idealistic, some more pragmatic, and opinions often clash, but it's a great learning ground. Politics, economics, geography and history are explored endlessly through these conversations. C doesn't join in much, but she picks things up, then asks us about them later. She takes the concepts and defines them according to her understanding of the world. She wants to know who is kind or fair, who is mean and why things happen like they do.

Our work and hobbies Sharing the things we do with our children is an important part of our lives. Their dad travels a lot and sees all sorts of companies in different countries. There's a wealth of information to share there and opens up conversations about many things, from different cultural customs to the way business organisations work.

For a long time I ran my own business, and the children knew a lot about the way it worked. I shared many things with them, from meetings I was preparing, to getting texts ready for deadlines etc. If I was worried, I would explain what the worry was, and if there was a success to celebrate I'd share that too. They have a realistic idea of what is involved in running a business, and their own ideas often reflect some of the things we've talked about over the years. In this context too, there is a lot to talk about so far as business ethics and principles go. Lecturing your children on moral topics is a surefire way to bore them, but showing how you apply certain principles to your own life and work is powerful.

It's great to bring other adults into the mix too, as seeing something in action can open up new worlds. My sister is a novelist and came to visit recently. One day she was reading though a great wad of papers, doing a final edit of her novel. We were all enthralled by the process. Another friend works at the university and has helped D with learning game design. He invited us to his workplace, where they were working on virtual reality and on a robot. Seeing this in action is far more powerful than theory.

Family events We forget that the things that we may find tiring could be a lot of fun to someone else. E is particularly good at getting out the map and working out how to best plan a trip. So, organising a trip to the UK, where we need to check and compare the prices of flights, airbnbs in different cities, or maybe think of somewhere we'd like to explore for a couple of days is right up his street.

We're organising a little Christmas party right now and E is in charge of the budget. If we buy anything that will be used at the party, the receipt goes to him. Yesterday, a friend gave me a huge bag of beautiful branches and other natural decorations and I was able to report to E that I wouldn't need to use the (small!) decoration budget we had allocated. He was very pleased with me. He's also in charge of the guest list and has assigned each of us a list of friends to invite and confirm. He'll be following us up..

Business ideas Perhaps because both of us are freelance and I ran a company for years, there's a big entrepreneurial streak in the family. The business ideas come hard and fast. I love these conversations, because I really do love small business and all it entails. Some of the ideas are quite feasible, such as starting a Minecraft server, making jewellery, or becoming a dealer in retro gaming equipment. Other ideas are more ambitious and involve buying properties or factories. Some of the ideas lead to a lot of interesting research, involving an understanding of the market, prices, costs and so on. Sometimes, the business even has a name already. I would say that at any one time there are about seven or eight ideas on the go. Some are left quickly behind, others persevere for a while then are finally abandoned, and others get more refined over time. Although none have come to fruition yet, I'm sure that a year or two down the line and one of these ideas will be earning someone some extra pocket money.

Other homes will have different themes that constantly come up. No matter what they are, inviting our children in is important. Life is meaningful to them - they want to understand it and be part of it. Learning is just a natural side product.

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