What Did You Learn Today?



It’s a question I dreaded as a child.  Most days, having just walked in the door from school, I couldn’t answer it, especially under pressure. With few exceptions, I either didn’t remember, wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t easily express the information. The question made me anxious. So my response was usually a vague, “I don’t know . . . stuff.” 

I’m amazed at how many well-meaning parents and other adults ask children this heavily loaded question, which is really a quiz in the guise of “how was your day?” What is really being asked (perhaps with genuine interest) is, “what facts and formulas did you memorize, what topics were covered, and how much of it did you retain?” The fault lies not with the question itself but with the context. Asked within the framework of school, if every child were identical in their capacities, interests and development, then each child in the same class on any given day would be able to give a similar response. Which ultimately makes both the question and the answer impersonal. The “you” in “what did you learn today?” is collective by nature.

But what a lovely question it becomes when asked individually, with no right or wrong answer, in the context of meaningful learning born of curiosity. Instead of an inquiry, it becomes an invitation. Tell me. What did you see, hear, touch, taste, create? What mystery did you unravel? What gift did you unwrap? What questions fell upon you? What notions did you conceive? What answers did you light upon? Tell me. I really want to know.

The way my two children live and learn couldn’t be more different from my own childhood. Because they are unique and are given the freedom to pursue their interests and passions, what they each learn reflects how they individually look at and learn from the world. They will take away completely different things from the same experience. After watching the breathtakingly beautiful film, « Samsara », they both wanted to learn more about Tibetan Mandalas. We watched videos, researched their history, how they are created and the cultural and spiritual significance behind them. My daughter was intrigued by the creation process: the geometry, the colors, the method, the design. She wanted to make one right away, color it and appreciate it as a work of art. My son was drawn to the idea that after a painstaking period of patient creation, mandalas are immediately wiped away by their creators, the colored sand gathered and scattered to the wind, signifying the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and non-attachment to the material.

After finding an online mandala creator, they both designed, printed and hand colored their own. It took two days, several sharpeners and an entire pack of colored pencils worked down to stubs. The one above is my daughters. We’ll hang it up in a special place to admire.

It was hard to light the match– because it really was beautiful– but we watched the one my son created scatter and float away in weightless cinders. He remembers every detail.





10 thoughts on “What Did You Learn Today?

  1. beautiful post. at first glance the mandala looked like exquisite embroidery to mine eye, it’s lovely. fascinating how we come to a concept and see in such varied ways isn’t it! 🙂


    • It reminds me of a Japanese Imari plate my mom had hanging on the wall when I was growing up. I ended up making my own mandala and it was a very cool and satisfying process. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy it though. I guess my son is a wise soul!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How beautiful! I thought the mandala was a bowl at first! Very interesting thought: to destroy what you’ve created – makes me wonder what my two sausages would feel about that…


    • Hi Lisa, thanks and yes, we loved that episode! My daughter said, “see mom, Claire’s not so bad afterall”! Have you seen the documentary “Samsara”? There are no words in the film and parts of it are intense–it really shows the polarity of the world–but the images are amazing, especially the mandala creation. Glad you liked the post and thanks for following! Ellen


  3. Thanks for sharing this, Ellen. What a beautiful and special mandala your daughter has created! And I’m sure your son’s one was just as amazing.
    It’s interesting as I have 3 boys at home and they are frequently destroying their wonderful arts, crafts and construction works, even if they have devoted many hours to create them. It’s been quite a challenge for me to accept this in the beginning. And I actually do have a few of their masterpieces saved for me to admire for longer than just a day or two ;-). But I have really learned from them to appreciate the process of creation for itself and to do take away the old and make space for something new to come.
    I’ve also been wondering if it might be something that has to do with male/female (in an archaic sense) approaches to life. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.
    Best wishes, Nina


    • Hi Nina! I never thought of it from the male/female perspective before. You may be right–maybe as females we’re genetically programmed for posterity! My husband would get rid of almost anything in our house that wasn’t useful, whereas I’m much more sentimental. My son is creating all the time, dozens of drawings a day, so I find myself having to go through them often and pick out what to keep and what to toss or recycle and it’s really hard for me. He doesn’t seem to be attached to his work at all which I guess is a good thing. I think it’s more a personality thing in our case. My son is not very anchored to the earth so to speak. He’s very much a dreamer which I love about him. Hope you and your family are well. Ellen


  4. Wow. That’s a powerful story.

    I’m loving your site, thank you! We have small children and unschooling looks like the way ahead for us. Thanks for sharing the stories of your family.


    • Hi Thalia, so glad you found the site and have enjoyed it! Sharing our stories really helps me as well. I think the decision to unschool is always a brave one because society likes to make us feel shaky at times for going against the grain. But the rewards are so worth it, both for our children and for us parents! Good luck on your journey and the best to you and your family!


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