Monday, June 27, 2005

Homeschooling: What worked and what didn't

All homeschooling parents will happily talk for hours on the things that worked or didn't work--from their perspective as the teacher. Soon I will join their ranks. But before I do, I want to reflect on the things that worked from my perspective as a student. That is, what things, looking back, can I now see resulted in learning or good character? And what things shut down learning and turned me into a student bureaucrat?

Didn't work: 95% of textbooks and workbooks, when used as designed
Worked: Lots of books lying around the house and lots of time to read them
Sometimes I think my mom's most effective homeschooling method was filling the house with books and then taking a nap. (Since she had narcolepsy, she did the latter pretty often.) Given free rein and mostly quality books to read, we really did gravitate towards book that exposed us to new ideas, and we really did remember what we read. Forced to complete the mind-numbingly boring questions at the end of a section, our brains shut off altogether.

There were cases when textbooks and workbooks worked. A lot of history and literature textbooks, especially high school level, were read for their own sake, as long as we could avoid those dreaded questions. (I don't recall ever reading a science textbook for fun, but we had many far more interesting science books around to read.) And there were a few cases where a text I got to select myself, or one that hit on a particular interest, was actually worth working through a page at a time. But those were definitely the exception.

Didn't work: We have to study X now, because X is the next thing on the list
Worked: I am obsessed with X, don't you want to hear about it?
John Holt talks a lot about the uselessness of unrequested teaching. I think there is an exception, though, and that is where someone tries to tell someone else about something that is deeply interesting to them. The worst that can happen when the "teacher" really does care about the subject matter is that the "student" dismisses the "teacher" as a harmless but entertaining lunatic; at least they will have caught a glimpse of the beauty of loving learning. We always rolled our eyes (and gagged) when Mom wanted to examine our latest specimen from the back of the fridge under the microscope--but we certainly didn't thereby grow to hate organic chemistry. I am afraid insistence on sentence diagrams for the sake of sentence diagrams did not have the same effect.

Didn't work: Complete a 3-page report (which no one will ever voluntarily read) on subject X (in which you have no interest whatsoever).
Worked: You were the one who wanted to start this project, so we need to see it through to the end.
I think adults think assignments of the first variety will, even if they don't result in learning (they don't) will build character necessary for adult life, since after all, adults often have to do work they don't like to do. But unpleasant tasks in adult life generally fall into two categories: tasks that are a necessary part of an overall purpose which you have freely chosen and which you highly value; and tasks that are at least necessary for life. I may not enjoy doing the dishes, but I do need to have room to cook the next meal and dishes to eat it on.

There are adult situations where one must do meaningless tasks which one has not freely chosen, but since I do not aspire for my children to be slaves, prisoners, or Dilberts, I see no point in training them to submit to meaningless work merely for the sake of keeping out of trouble.

There are plenty of tasks in life that are meaningful and important, though not necessarily fun, to teach persevering in a task. And if our children inherit one-tenth of our capacity for dreaming up new projects to tackle, we will have plenty of opportunities to teach them to see things through with valuable work of their own choosing.

Didn't work: Parental scrutiny
Worked: Parental supervision
Kids do need someone keeping an eye on them and making sure they don't do anything too awful. And I certainly always felt better knowing there was someone handy in case of emergency. On the other hand, no one ought to have to explain their every thought and movement to an authority. And this is especially difficult when one is trying to accomplish a task. It's easy for all of us to think we have the One Right Way to do something, and then insist that those under us do it in that One Right Way, but it makes it well-nigh impossible for the person performing the task to actually figure it out and get it done.

When I was a child, I hated writing. Hated, hated, hated it. One night I skipped pizza (a rare treat) rather than complete a writing assignment. It was too personal and it hurt too much to have it read, much less corrected. Scrutinized writing assignments with their rough drafts and rewrites and grades just made me hate it worse.

But I also had a pile of half-used notebooks that I squirreled away in my bedroom. In them, I could write whatever I wanted, rewrite or not as I felt inclined, and rest secure in the knowledge that no one would read them--or at least if they did, I wouldn't have to know about it. After several years of this, I not only had more courage to write for others to read, I was also a good enough writer to critique other people's writing--and then receiving their critiques was not nearly so painful. Which leads to the next point:

Didn't Work: I know all about things, so you, in your ignorance, must listen to me.
Worked: I know some things you don't know, and you know some things I don't know, so let's tell each other about them.
I should probably clarify that I don't remember the former ever occurring in our house, but it's implied in a lot of schooling. At our house it was generally understood that everybody was a specialist in different things, and one might start being the consulted expert in some particular area at a very early age.

Nobody likes a know-it-all, and nobody likes feeling stupid. Parents have such an intrinsic advantage in knowledge over kids, I think they need to take special steps to make sure that they don't come across as know-it-alls. That's why I hope my children start knowing things I don't know about as soon as possible. Then learning becomes a joint adventure, not something I impose. Once they start reading, this will be easy. But even before then, they may well have the advantage over me in observation and memory, and I need to be ready to catch that and appreciate it.

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