Doing nothing academically?

From the archives: The original post was posted on 29th September, 1996

Parents whose children don’t go to school often worry that their children do not appear to be doing much academically, or not doing much that seems worthwhile or valuable. If you are such a parent, it is worth subjecting your theories of what constitutes “worthwhile” or “valuable” to the strongest criticism you can. Try to think about learning and education much more broadly.

Sometimes, previously-schooled children ask for assignments, and then when they get one, lose interest and don’t complete it. The reason for this phenomenon may be that doing an assignment takes the intrinsic interest out of the subject-matter. But it is of course quite normal, and indeed good, to start things and not finish them. Contrary to the theory that one should always finish things one starts, it would be irrational to act otherwise when finishing no longer seems a good idea.

Forget assignments. They are a complete waste of time for all concerned. If your children ask you for assignments, they are probably asking you to help them discover what interests them. In most cases, instead of designing assignments, the thing to do would be to try devoting that creativity to the problem of helping them discover a new interest or passion. The capacity to find things one enjoys is a vital form of creativity, and one of the most easily damaged by academic-style coercion. Conventionally the evidence of this damage is systematically hidden (because parents and teachers make children spend most of their time jumping through worthless hoops) until it is far too late and they are adults who are mysteriously unable to find any fulfilment in life despite the ‘marvellous opportunities’ afforded by their extensive education and extra-curricular activities.

If you are worried that your children are not doing enough academically, you might find it helpful to think about why you are concerned about academic learning in particular, and what you are worried about in this respect. Would it be the end of the world if your children were to choose not to pursue academic studies? It might be worth thinking of this as your own problem, and looking at it with that in mind, rather than focusing attention on your children.

Thinking and learning do not necessarily produce any evidence at all, and it is a grave mistake to seek evidence of children’s learning, because that can have a significant destructive effect upon the learning that is going on. The person from whom the evidence is sought is then highly likely to switch from addressing the problem he was addressing, to the new problem the teacher has introduced, of how to perform and provide evidence for the teacher.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1996, ‘Doing nothing academically?’,