Unconventional Learning: My Brother’s Story

Unconventional Learning: My Brother’s Story

When my youngest brother was growing up, he loved to dig and build and explore. He was always inventing things as he grew. A highlight of my high school years was when he was in elementary school and he figured out how to make our riding lawn mower do wheelies and go three times as fast as it was supposed to go.


My brother has always been good with his hands, building, creating, envisioning. But guess what? Schools aren’t set up for those kinds of learners.


By the time he was finishing up kindergarten, he already felt like a failure. The teachers said that he, “Only wanted to play all day and wasn’t ready for 1st grade yet,” so he was retained. He felt like he had failed.


In reality, children learn through play. We’re very confused about that in our culture. It isn’t that they learn on a worksheet and then they play as a reward. It is literally how they learn. And my brother was and is a strong kinesthetic learner, which means he learns by doing more so than listening or watching. He was wicked smart (and still is), but he learns differently than the other kids in his public school. The public school system caters to a small percentage of children with no special needs who excel at the kinds of tasks asked of them.


I did well in public school. I am a visual learner. I like tests and targeted assignments that stretch my limits a bit. As I went on in school all the way through my master’s degree and focused what I was learning, I did better and better in school.


My brother somehow managed to get through it, partially because by the time he got to high school he was enrolled in a program for auto mechanics and welding. Over the years, I’ve seen him blossom. I’ve seen him hit his stride to learn in spite of the time he spent in school. He’s one of the most educated people I know. When I have a nutrition question, want to hear about conspiracy theories, or living off the grid, he’s the one I go to. (And if I ever decide to live off the grid, I’m taking him with me!)

Fork lift, photo by Rebecca Thompson Hitt

My brother's fork lift.

Over the winter, he opened his own auto shop. When I was visiting last month, I got to tour his shop and he showed me how he had rebuilt the frame from a rusted out jeep, he tried to explain the robot he uses that he can program to do all sorts of things in his shop, and his fork lift. He’s doing what he loves. He’s constantly learning and challenging himself. He’s brilliant.


For me, it really highlights the importance of finding your own path to learn and helping your children find their own path. We have a lot of arbitrary rules about what schooling and education are supposed to look like, but does it work? For some kids, it does. For others, a different path is required. Know your child. Know your options. “School” can look many different ways and can evolve over time.


What about you? What was your experience of school? What do you feel your kids need? Is it the same or different than you?


Join the discussion.


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