After eighteen years of thinking of my children’s education in what turns out to be a totally backwards way…I’m finally figuring it out. And boy, do I feel like I stepped off the bus three stops too late.
It’s not a homeschool versus public school debate, but rather a style of learning debate that goes on inside my head lately. I’ve been reading about the philosophies of homeschoolers and find myself more and more intrigued with the idea of ‘unschooling’. Not because I want to sit around and do nothing, which is how it at first sounded to me, but rather because my kids may be better served armed with life skills than with math facts.
Robin is lousy at math. She has a memory disability, which makes memorizing math facts an almost impossible task. And so, because she struggles with it, the answer has always been to focus on math. Special services in math. Extra math minutes in place of recess twice a week. Repeated testing and evaluation to see how her math skills are coming along. Clearly she is not going to have a career based on math skills, but the best thing we can do for her, as her educators, is to inundate her with math facts until by some miracle, she absorbs the material. Sounds ridiculous when put that way, no?
Meanwhile, almost without notice, Robin is an excellent writer. She can weave fiction together or re-create reality into words to tug at your heart. And guess what? She loves it. She’ll most likely continue to write well into adulthood and maybe she’ll even make a living with words…but she already earns A’s…so what more are we to do? She can’t divide fractions…we must focus on that!
Bull. Robin needs creative writing free-time, not calculus. She needs to lay in a hammock in the sun and jot down story ideas or do cross words to improve her vocabulary. She needs exposure to classic literature, not a hundred multiplication facts a day. She needs to have confidence, to be joyful, and yet every single day she is reminded by her math class, that she is deficient…that she is somehow less smart compared to her peers because 8th grade math is a mystery and her brain doesn’t work like theirs. And then, to concrete that idea, we give her annual testing in which she is compared to her peers, so she can fail and do it again. A test that reminds her she is not good enough. Last year she was “proficient” and we all cheered, but what of the years before when she was left feeling inadequate and stupid?
And so, my argument is, why spend hours each week on trying to convince her to master a skill she struggles with, rather than apply those same hours to something she enjoys and will actually benefit her future? Why not help her learn math through ‘life’ and stop torturing her with worksheets, giving her the free time to work on things she is really good at!
If Robin spent June through August in summer school studying math, by the end of the season she would have a grasp of geometry, on paper, and she might forget it by the time she takes another geometry class. But if she spent that same summer helping build our cabin, using a tape measure, finding angles for rooflines, cutting up boards, building shapes, finding 16 inch centers, dividing to center the windows, computing board foot to buy and roof drops for length of boards…she would have gained actual usable skills that she will remember, time and time again.
And people would say, “Oh, she took the summer off of school…” And this may be true, but did she take the summer off from education? Or would she gain more from those months of hands on work than from three years of pencil and paper?
On the other end of the spectrum, several of my kids will never, in their entire life, need to learn how to write a five stanza poem. It would serve no purpose. They may never write an email, let alone a story and their life goals are different than Robin’s. Some of my kids will gain little from a modern education. Their time would be best spent mending fishing nets, a valuable skill in our area…or building their own cabin. They may gain more spending five minutes listening to the old man down the road tell them the best way to tie a hook to their line, then five hours learning proper punctuation. (and I say this as a mother of multiple children who suffer brain damage, so please don’t tell me I’m belittling and short-changing my children’s futures until you’ve spent a day in my house…)
And I don’t apply this thought only to those who lack strength academically. I also have kids in my house who excel at everything they attempt. And why can’t the same rules apply? Would Anthony be better off reading a text about sea creatures, or at the beach exploring with his own hands and eyes, forming his own hypothesis and conclusions, then running home to Google to compare his findings? And if I force the assignments, if I require a certain number of hours sitting in front of a computer or with a textbook, am I not possibly destroying the natural thrill or his yearning for knowledge? Whether the child struggles or if things come easy to him or her, there are clearly educational benefits to living a life free of the constraints of a classroom, whether that be in a school building or in their living room.
There must be a balance, and if the scales for our family tips more in the direction of life skills and lessons than toward formal education, it will be because we’ve carefully looked at each of our children’s situations and based our decisions on those, rather than what most think of as the norm.
I’m not discounting the value of memorizing facts or studying texts, because surely in some applications those techniques have a place. Certainly I couldn’t have gotten through college without those skills. And I realize one can never know which direction a child will go as they grow and develop. But often, and perhaps more often than not, a non-traditional education is more beneficial in the long run than what we typically think of as schooling. I only wish I’d stepped outside the box a little sooner.