When parents first hear that students at the Truly Free School have liberty to pursue their own educational interests, the question often arises: “How do students learn the fundamentals, like reading, writing, and mathematics?” First, it is important to note that children are created by God to be learners – that they have an irrepressible mental development that absorbs knowledge from their experiences, and an insatiable desire to imitate what they see around them. When a child joins in the environment of learning, it stirs up “powerful manifestations of an inner energy[,] . . . joy[,] and enthusiasm in a child. It is therefore not a kind of arid learning but rather a triumphant manifestation of a child’s personality.”1 Children learn to speak, not by the systematic introduction of sounds, words, grammatical structures, verb tenses, and other linguistic constructs, but by being present in an environment where speaking takes place on a regular basis, and where speaking is meaningful for achieving communication and self-expression. One of the great benefits of an age-integrated environment is that younger students (who are not yet proficient in certain tasks and skills) see the older students working and want to be like them – to know what they know and do what they do. So, simply by being in an environment like the Truly Free School where reading, writing, and mathematics are practiced daily and held in high regard, children who are currently illiterate and innumerate will learn by absorption and imitation to read, write, and calculate.
Second, most educators have chosen to segregate the fundamentals into independent topics of study, but it is our belief that these topics are intrinsically embedded in all deep learning of any subject, and that learning the fundamentals is best done in the context of pursuing thorough knowledge of student-initiated content areas. To give an example: consider the child who is fascinated by cooking. In the process of baking brownies, she must read to identify the recipe ingredients, set the oven to the correct temperature, calculate the correct quantities of each item according to the existing ratios, accurately measure the contents, follow a set of instructions for which ingredients to add at which time and by which method, input a time for the baking duration, follow the scientific method in making observations and performing experiments to determine doneness, etc. After consuming the brownies, she might write recipe annotations for things to modify for next time, or copy down the entire recipe to take along with her so she can make them again at home. Baking brownies will not likely provide the full breadth or systematic knowledge of all that is to be learned about reading or writing or mathematics, but it does provide a rich tapestry of relevant concepts on which further knowledge can be built. Over time, and spanning a wide variety of interests, students necessarily learn the fundamentals in a way that is more intrinsic and grounded than learning them abstractly. For our younger students, the Primary Program is specially designed to weave together this interest-based learning within a mentor-structured schedule.
Finally, it is critical to keep in mind that which concepts are considered “fundamental” are culturally bound – that different cultures over different times have valued certain topics as being more or less important than others, and that what is considered fundamental by one group might not be considered fundamental by another. This is why we hold that students at the Truly Free School are free to learn, that whatever area of knowledge and understanding they are pursuing – whether music, biology, astronomy, kinesiology, psychology, philosophy, or anything else – can be for the good purpose of loving God and loving others. What can be more fundamental than that?