Careful Planning and Instruction? No Thanks!

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) got me thinking back in the 1980s when they were strongly against early academic, and especially early reading, instruction. I took their arguments to heart, and my own young children freely played their way through their preschool years and were not given any type of early instruction. Instead, we created a rich and stimulating environment in which they could learn through play, experimentation, exploration, investigation, collaboration, and doing what brought them joy. And they learned. A lot. There was no stopping them. After that, school was a big disappointment. The very idea of school is that someone (usually some committee of experts) decides what, when, and how children should learn, and eventually the requirements filter down to a classroom where a teacher tries to inspire, cajole, or flat-out force the kids into learning it. WHAT a difference from the way my children had been learning until then!

My own thinking about learning was firmly rooted in the radical ideas of John Holt and A.S. Neill, both of whom I’d read before I ever had any children of my own.  Both argued for supporting children’s learning without curriculum, lessons, or other imposed-from-above methods by offering real-life experiences and encouragement and assistance to a child pursuing his/her own interests. I had managed to get my children into an cutting-edge public school which had ungraded classrooms and an unusual amount of freedom for students. There were no tests and no grades. Classrooms had learning centers and children were free to move around the room, working on activities of their own choice for much of the day.

So what was wrong? Why did I continue to be so dissatisfied with the schooling my children were receiving? Even while I spent my time volunteering at the school, working in the classroom, running PTA events, promoting “teacher appreciation” and school spirit, I was disappointed with the way my children were being educated. There were good times and bad, but, overall, I thought it was stifling, and I could see that it was slowly, but surely, dulling the children’s initial bright-eyed curiosity.

And then we simply stopped doing school. We pulled the kids out of formal school and we stopped worrying at all about lessons, teaching, curriculum, assessment. We focused on creating a joy-filled and stimulating family life in which the children could discover and follow their interests. They watched, read, listened, played, built, created, explored, investigated, experimented and learned. They talked and wrote and sang at the tops of their voices throughout the day. We spent days outdoors at the beach, in the woods, hiking, swimming, and relaxing. We spent days cocooned in the house, cooking and playing games. Life happened. Learning happened.

Now they are grown. And, maybe surprisingly in light of our unconventional choices, they are quite successful in very conventional ways including work, college, relationships, and hobbies. All three are leaders in their communities. They turned out just fine, thank you very much!

The NAEYC, which inspired me so much at the beginning of my parenting journey, seems to have moved in a different direction. In their position paper, “Where We Stand on Learning to Read and Write,” they state, “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.”* I could not disagree more. Children DO become literate automatically in the same way they learned to walk and speak automatically, if they are given the opportunity. Careful planning and instruction are totally unnecessary and can do far more harm than good. What children (of all ages) need is a rich and stimulating environment with caring adults who engage with them and support them. A rich and active home life with attentive parents and books, games, music, conversation, and socializing among people of all ages, is ideal. Ideal!

Yes, in today’s society, most children will continue to go to school. But it is NOT ideal for young humans to learn in crowded classrooms with 20 or 30 other same-age children and one adult providing lessons decided on by committees who don’t even know these particular children. It could be made better, however, if the NAEYC and other professional organizations would put their focus back on how children naturally learn. Children who learn in a rich and supportive environment do not need to be constantly assessed and tested, for example. Children naturally challenge themselves.  They don’t want to be bored or frustrated – they want to learn.  If adults are paying attention and are responsive to children’s expressed interests, they will automatically provide appropriately challenging activities. When curriculum is planned somewhere else and imposed on children, it is almost certainly inappropriate to any particular child and children will respond by becoming apathetic or either passively or actively resistant. Then schools are dealing with many recalcitrant children, and a vicious cycle is begun in which schools try one method after another to force learning and children become increasingly resistant.

The problem is a very basic one. It will take a paradigm shift to solve it. The entire education system is based on a faulty premise and my family, and many others like mine, are the proof. The faulty premise is exactly what is stated in the NAEYC “Children do not become literate automatically; careful planning and instruction are essential.” This is just wrong and the more careful planning and instruction are utilized, the more difficult it seems to become to get children to learn.

Children do not need to be cajoled or forced to learn. The urge to learn is as natural to human children as it is to all other animals, and their learning can be equally joyful, intense, satisfying, and successful. Education “experts” are on the wrong track as they write and rewrite learning objectives, learning standards, or new “student learning outcomes.” They redesign curriculum and they test and test and test again, hoping against hope that the newest educational fad will be the one that works.

*Here is a link to a summary of the NAEYC paper. I’m not recommending it, just citing it as the source of the quote I used. <;


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sandra Dodd
    Feb 18, 2012 @ 23:46:21

    -=- It could be made better, however, if the NAEYC and other professional organizations would put their focus back on how children naturally learn. -=-

    They will put their focus back there, but it won’t make things better. And then they will move their focus back.

    Before I quit teaching, just in the time I was in school, university and the classroom, things swung back and forth twice about whether children needed to learn rote facts; no, they need to learn to figure things out; no, rote facts; no, they need to learn how to learn.

    School defends itself as alcohol defends itself. School will defend itself against the culture which created it, just as alcohol will destroy its own host to “survive.”



    • Pam Sorooshian
      Feb 19, 2012 @ 03:43:13

      Meaning the pendulum will continue to swing in the formal education world? Yes, so true. If it swings toward more freedom and less control and testing, that will mean some kids will have a better experience. Roya and Roxana were in school for a few years during the whole language, constructivist math, hands-on science, and authentic assessment swing of the pendulum and that was relatively good…they had no testing, no formal “lessons,” no grades, and quite a lot of choice in how they spent their time in school. It wasn’t freedom and joy, but it was a whole lot less harmful than it could have been.



  2. Cathy
    Feb 19, 2012 @ 01:02:22

    I agree with 99.9% of what you say here, Pam, and as usual I love the clear, direct prose with which you express your ideas. However, I have a slight quibble with the equation of becoming literate “automatically in the same way they learned to walk and talk.” I agree that most children do not need direct instruction in reading and writing in order to achieve literacy, and that a stimulating environment with caring adults is enough to ensure that most kids will achieve literacy (and many other skills and areas of knowledge); I further agree that direct instruction often does more harm than good. But I think the words “in the same way” overstates your case, since humans have evolved to learn language and to walk (barring a few physical limitations such as deafness or lack of legs)– but not to read and write. Therefore, talking is more “natural” than reading.

    By the way, with more and more ease in creating and enjoying audio/visual content than ever before, thanks to technology, it’s possible that people will read less in future generations than in the past couple of centuries.



    • Pam Sorooshian
      Feb 19, 2012 @ 01:35:08

      The ability to speak has evolved as a biological process. But so has the ability to read (to use the eyes to discriminate between objects and symbols, for example). Language (spoken or written) is cultural and hasn’t evolved in the same sense.

      Children learn to speak (naturally) by emulating adults, experimenting, and responding to feedback. They can learn to read in the same way. There is no more need for carefully planned instruction in reading than there is in speaking.



      • Cathy
        Feb 19, 2012 @ 05:19:09

        I have been influenced by Steven Pinker’s thoughts on language acquisition, and I would argue that there is some difference in learning one’s “mother tongue” as an infant as opposed to learning a second language at age, say, 20–even in the best of circumstances, such as total immersion in that language. In the same way, there is a difference in learning to speak one’s mother tongue as an infant and learning to read that language at age 4 or 6 or 8 or 10 (to list just a few of the ages at which unschooled kids begin to read fluently). Yes, I agree that the process of learning to read in an unschooling family can be quite natural and can involve nothing but emulation, experimentation, and feedback–no direct instruction. We lived that multiple times in my house! But I have also read and heard from those who claim they really did need more direct help to learn to decode or encode…Who knows what barriers prevented a more natural acquisition of literacy in these few cases?


  3. hilinda
    Feb 20, 2012 @ 06:39:25

    Those who say they needed more direct help to “learn to decode or encode”… how do they know they “needed” it? They can’t know what would have happened had they not done something, if they did it.
    I ask because my daughter did not learn to read at the same age or in the same way as everyone else in the family. If I had believed that some people need direct help to learn to read, I may very well have decided at the age of 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 that since she wasn’t getting it on her own, she must be one of the ones who needed that direct help. However, I also know that “direct help” would not have accelerated her learning. She was not ready to learn it, so no amount of teaching would have had a positive effect. It would have confused her and frustrated her, but it would not have helped. Instead, trusting that she would come to it when she was ready to do so, and continuing to provide a language and text-rich environment, was all that was required.
    Before I’d say that someone “needed direct help” I’d have to see what environment they were in, and whether it provided everything they needed. It may well be that changing the environment would have been more effective than “direct help.” I think the only “barrier” that “prevented a more natural acquisition of literacy” was one of parents deciding that the process was taking too long.



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