- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 17, 2005

I recently met a young man who speaks four languages fluently. Not only that, but each has a separate alphabet, writing system and grammatical structure. He’s 15.

I asked him how he learned each language. The simple answer: living in different countries and being exposed to their peoples’ daily life. He picked up the languages and their writing systems through serial immersion.

A young girl with parents of different language origins speaks both fluently. She has lived in both parents’ countries, and her parents continue to speak both languages at home. She recently got permission to study the languages at the college level even though she never had formal classes in either.

The youngsters in another family I know are all accomplished musicians at early ages. The 13-year-old boy has played in semiprofessional settings since he was 9. Yet none of the four children has ever taken a formal music lesson. Their dad is a musician, and since the children were small, instruments have always been around the house. He would teach them as they asked questions. He loved to play, so they loved to play. Today, they are “fluent” in musical languages, playing several instruments each and with virtually no enforced practice schedules, recitals, tests or curricula, or a single report card.

Doesn’t this kind of thing make you wonder? Here are teens performing complex skills with virtually no formal training. Why is it, I wonder, that we don’t pay attention to the very real phenomenon of informal education?

I know that as an adult, if I can do something and do it well, hardly ever does someone ask, “What degree did you get in it?” Instead, people ask, “How did you learn that?”

Usually, a huge amount of any person’s real skills have been gained by informal learning of some kind: family activities, community service, even hobbies. This is especially true when teens are active in a volunteer project, in which paid staff are few and the needs are high.

The other day, I needed to create a press release but had many other tasks to do. Scanning the room, I grabbed a teen who I know has good writing ability. Sitting him down in front of the computer, I gave him a three-minute explanation of what was needed. He went to work.

Several hours later, with a few questions asked and answered along the way, he was finished. I performed some basic editing, made a few adjustments and then asked him to research contact information for specific media we wanted to reach. He had to do a bit of phone calling and Internet checking, and from time to time, he hit some obstacles, which he reported to me. I guided him through those. Then I asked him to locate a photo to accompany the release, which he did, and he inserted it into the document. Finally, he sent out the releases, by e-mail and fax, to a dozen media outlets.

In two days, he learned and performed a professional skill, which he can use at any time. This type of informal learning opportunity exists throughout our daily lives.

Home educators can capitalize on informal learning, making use of opportunities to help children learn new skills. In one volunteer project I coordinate, children are learning public speaking, theater arts, music, dance, gymnastics, foreign languages, Web design, video editing, music recording and production, computer skills, hospitality, and event planning. They are managing budgets, negotiating with vendors, researching equipment and working with professionals in each field to find answers to their questions.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about this — it’s natural to learn through life experiences. In their case, they are being put in a situation in which something is needed, and they initiate the process of finding solutions.

Giving children chances to learn adult-level skills in an informal setting is a great way to prepare them for their careers. With home-schooling, informal learning can augment or replace textbook studies.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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