Is it Necessary to Divide Knowledge into “Subjects”?

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We do not leave learning behind at the school gates and everything we learn later in life isn’t necessarily divided into categories. So why do we insist on allocating learning into numerous different disciplines with specific, pre-fabricated content? Because it suits the organised environment of schooling and mass teaching.

For homeschoolers or self-directed learners, learning tends to happen through watching and doing. Although setting aside a couple of hours for maths and English is sometimes reassuring for parents, most areas of learning are more enjoyable when explored naturally though reading real books, observation and discussion instead of through textbooks and tick-the-box worksheets. Children’s interests change constantly and questions can veer in all sorts of directions. When not restricted to learning one particular subject at one particular time, they are free to explore these questions and the learning opportunities they lead them to.

Unschooling allows you to learn whatever you need whenever you need/ want to know it. My maths skills are very basic but if one day I need to master a higher level of maths for a specific reason, I know I have the confidence to pursue it until I succeed. Self-directed learning gave me that confidence. Henry VIII and his wives are a learning topic at some point in all schools. I can’t remember much of what I studied at school, but I learnt all about the Tudors by reading historical fiction like Phillipa Gregory’s books.

When learning, one subject leads to another as an intricate process in which everything is linked. Dividing these subjects can take everything out of context. A quote by Terri Dowty on the learning process of her children from the fantastic book “Free Range Education” explains this well. “I am convinced that they retain so much knowledge because it is gained in an order which makes unique sense to them. When information is not divided arbitrarily into subjects, they can steer along their own path, relating one piece of information to another in a perfectly logical sequence.”

English can easily cross with history, science with geography, drama with physical education. Although the following quote by Terri Dowty is a very long one, I think it is perfect at demonstrating the ease and joy with which children learn. “Recently, Biggs asked me what a ‘nom de plume’ meant. After I had explained, we thought of a few examples and considered the different reasons an author might use one. Ollie asked if William Shakespeare was a nom de plume, so Biggs checked in the dictionary and read out a few biographical details. This prompted a question about Stratford-upon-Avon which needed the map book. We traced the Avon to Gloucestershire and reminisced about visiting my parents who had lived near Newent when the boys were small. Having found Newent on the map, Biggs noticed the source of the Thames and we followed back to London. Ollie pointed out the bridges which we cross regularly, relating them to nearby buildings. We wandered past the Houses of Parliament, pondering on democracy and elections, and on to St James’s Park with its pelicans and memories of a friend whose guide-dog had decided to take a dip in the lake. We talked about blindness, my Grandfather and the Somme. We paused for Biggs to read out a couple of Wilfred Owen poems, remembered the D-Day beaches we had visited on holidays and the glow worms we had seen in a Normandy garden. Eventually we found a satisfactory place to stop for lunch.”

Sometimes, the problem is quite simply that certain children aren’t interested in certain things straight away. However, this doesn’t mean they never will be. I remember daydreaming through maths, excitement bubbling in my tummy at the thought of going home to finish my story, play outside and watch the next episode of The Worst Witch, which my mother recorded for me every evening while I was travelling home on the school bus.  Children in school are made to study all “subjects” whether they like it or not. This does not mean that they succeed everywhere, or benefit from the notion of studying these things “for their own good”. They simply do less well or “fail” the subjects they were not interested in from the start. Quite often, they will never return to these “failed” subjects again, their confidence and curiosity crushed.

Taking control of one’s own learning not only makes a child feel happy, in control, motivated and safe, but also gives him a sense of confidence and independence that will carry him through life. Avoiding the separation of knowledge into strict, non-interchangeable areas allows children to discover certain areas of study through others, especially areas they would be less likely to enjoy if they were forced upon them as single subjects. A child who does not enjoy maths could get a taste for it through science, for example.

So is it necessary to divide knowledge into subjects? My opinion is no. At the end of the day, to learn is to live and to live is to learn.

What do you think?

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3 Comments

  1. Made planning for Middle School much easier. It allows my son perimeters to work within so I see how they are useful. But definitely felt a bit defeated falling to “subjects.”

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    1. Thanks for commenting, I can see where you’re coming from. It may be reassuring for a child to know what to focus on, especially in a “school at home” environment, and equally for the parents. Perhaps using “subjects” as loose boundaries for homeschooling could work, although I think it’s important to let these subjects cross over if that is where the questions children ask lead! Everybody does it differently! 🙂 I appreciate that you took the time to read!

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