July 28, 2008

A Look at Interest-led Learning

Peter and I had an interesting conversation yesterday after a friend told him why she didn't like homeschooling (at least the way we do it). She said she thought homeschoolers aren't challenged enough, that if something is hard, they just don't do it. He wondered what I thought. We had a great conversation, and I wish I had it recorded, but here's a summary of what we said:

Public schoolers look at life and learning differently than we do, and that's why they come to this conclusion. To most everyone in our society, learning is scripted and preprogrammed by someone else. Learning is like a machine you enter, have things done to you, and when you come out the other end, you are "educated." Some of those prescripted things are fun, some aren't, and if you could possibly refuse to partake in some elements, you would come out "defective."

We look at learning from the other side of the universe, it seems. We see it as a process of discovering who you are as a human being. The things you enjoy and find easy are the things you might be gifted at and are worth your time developing. Then as you pursue your interests, you might come to a wall. Are you interested enough to keep working and break through that wall? Peter is interested in philosophy right now. He's listening to lectures on Heidegger's book Being in Time. This is not easy reading, by any means, yet he wants to understand, so he spends his free time reading, thinking, and talking about this book. How many graduated seniors choose to spend their time this way?

If we subject children to a daily, yearly barrage of information and practice they hate, we are running the risk of killing their love of learning. We are teaching them that learning is a chore that has to be endured. No wonder kids act like caged animals set free when school's out. And no wonder so many adults stop learning (reading, pursuing new things) because they are so burned out by their "education." Or even worse, they've learned they are low on the intelligence scale and had better just give up.

If Peter had to pick a subject that he considers hard, it would be math. He's good at it (99th percentile), has studied up to a beginning Calculus level, but he's ready to stop. He's just not interested in studying any more math. If, however, he decides to go into a field that requires upper level math, he'll take a class in college. It all depends on his goals.

How many stories have we heard of people going to college later in life, even people who were poor students in high school? It's the motivation and eyes on the prize that propel us to do what we really want to do--and succeed. And sometimes we need the perspective of time away from institutional school to see who we are and what we really want out of life. Kids who have the privilege of finding that out early have the advantage and don't have wasted years trying to "find themselves."

What if we could look at learning and education a whole new way? I'm thinking of a children's book by John Trent called The Treasure Tree: Helping Kids Understand Their Personality. I don't own this book, and it's been many years since I read it, but the idea stuck in my head. There are four friends, a lion, a golden retriever, an otter, and a beaver. Each represent different personality types and different strengths. As each uses his strengths, they are able to face challenges and overcome obstacles. But what if they were forced to all have the same strengths? What if they lived in a world where they did not have the opportunity to fully develop who they are? For example, what if the lion had to spend most of his time in swimming lessons to make up for his "deficiency," but since the otter found swimming easy, he had to take extra classes in Stalking Prey? Or what if we introduce a bird curriculum developer into the picture. Now all these animals have to take flying lessons. What's wrong with finding out what you are good at and going for the gold? Maybe those things that are hard for you aren't really worth your time unless you actually need that skill to reach your goal.

I guess the bottom line is to give kids lots of exposure to diverse fields to help them find what they love, the things that excite them and seem easy. I'm reminded of a quote by Thomas Edison, "I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun." This quote is from a man who spent every waking hour experimenting until he held over 1,000 patents, including the electric lightbulb. Fun doesn't necessarily equal wasted time!

I will say that traditional schooling does a fairly good job of exposing kids to various fields of study. They get to dabble in a lot of things. But the problem is perpetual dabbling, forced dabbling, and no freedom to dive in completely.

Such interesting stuff! Peter is also reading a book by David F. Lancy called Qualitative Research in Education that he loves. He said last night he might end up in sociology studying education. Be still my heart. Could I have raised an education reformer?

photos: Peter on the lights for West Side Story; Melissa found a shell on the beach; Meg painted her bedroom door with roses.


Karen said...

I had a conversation with my (skeptical) mother-in-law just last night about this very subject! I said, 'the school was telling our son what to learn, but we think the school was wrong - we want him to decide what to learn for himself.' I don't think she bought it, so I'll send her a link to this post - you've put the whole issue so eloquently!

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What a great post, Jena. We share this belief, too. My kiddos and spend a few hours each morning doing the three R's, then they have the rest of the day to work on whatever subjects/activities might be calling them at the moment. And for my little ones, that includes lots of imaginative play where they get to "try out" different roles. I'm saddened for the children that don't get this time and opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. It was just what I needed to hear.
I am going through one of those phases where I doubt unschooling works. I was even considering enrolling my 5 year old twins in public school and starting a rigorous school at home schedule with my older children. Thanks for talking me down from the ledge :)


Jena said...

Facing doubts comes with the territory! Over the years I've had various levels of structure, but they all seemed to break down in about a month (except for Meg--she likes keeping a list of what books she should work through each day).

I really do believe interest-led education works and now that my kids are older, I feel even more confident about it. So hang in there and let your kids be kids and you will raise healthy, loving, creative, confident kids.

The funny part is now that my youngest wants to go to public school (she's 14), I just have to scratch my head and ask why?! But it's what she really wants and she knows what I think, and I just have to let her experience it for herself and develop her own opinions about the best way to do school. The great thing is that she has the freedom to change her mind and go back to homeschooling whenever she wants. She's not "stuck" in the system.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Jena. I wholeheartedly agree with you. Exposure in public school is fine, but having to commit to certain levels of dedication to subjects is wrong. Face it, the kids don't do it anyway. They go through the motions. I went through the motions of Algebra II, but I don't remember a single thing I "learned." Our kids are freed up to truly learn what truly interests them.

Laurie said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this blog entry! You've summed up the reason why we unschool as well. Great entry!!

And what a *beautiful* rose!! Did she free-hand that or use a stencil? Either way, she's quite talented!

Jena said...

Meg was probably 10 when she did those roses, and yes, they are free handed. She learned watching Donna Dewberry on PBS. She loved painting. Now she's more into drawing, and dancing, and singing, and acting, and making jewelry, and knitting...

Jena said...

I also meant to add thank you to everyone for your kind words about the article. I'm really enjoying getting all these thoughts down in one place.

Grandma Farm said...

I came across your blog a few days ago and absolutely love what you are sharing! We have older children who we had loosely schooled at home, not truly unschooling but close, and now 4 year old twins. I'm leaning more and more to following the twins' interests rather than imposing my schedule on them. You give me much food for thought!

MarshaMarshaMarsha said...

Very well said!

And thanks for giving me hope for extended intellectual conversations with my children one day-- we are currently in distraction and destruction mode at our house! LOL

Belinda Letchford said...

Hi Jena
I've come over from The Homeschool Lounge. What a great post.

Your opening thoughts about education being done to you or education being discovery - reminded me of the socialisation issue. I believe people have the same thoughts about this issue - socialisation is dealing with what is done to you - if you cope you are socialised. Homeschoolers look at that issue differently. Very thought provoking!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jena,
A beautiful blog post here! I'm glad I stumbled upon it. I'm a public elementary school teacher and your blog definately makes the grade for me! I enjoy reading your philosophy of schooling children and teaching with a child-led approach in a world where teaching from a boxed curriculum is standard and usually mandatory. I'm glad I'm in special education because at least curriculum is free to take on the "individualized" approach. At least in my classroom curriculum can be modified to meet the needs of all my classroom children. I don't have any children myself yet, but your postings help me think about weighing the options to the standard schooling system for my own someday. Anyway, just wanted to praise your thoughtfulness in writing about your journeys through homeschooling. Your blog will probably become like a piece of good "dark" chocolate at the end of my public school days! Keep on writing!

Jena said...

Thank you, everyone!

Miss Mountain, thanks for your kind words. I think classroom teachers have the hardest job in the world. Your students are blessed to have you.

And I love having my writing compared to "dark chocolate." That tops a Pulitzer in my world. :)

whatsreal said...

I need to second the dark chocolate comment :-) and add "thank you thank you thank you"
I hope there is a book on the horizon. Your voice is so refreshingly clear, inspiring and authentic.
Can I link to your blog on my site? greathomeschoolstuff.com in the "Inspiring Articles" section (the site is still under construction)
Thank you as ever.

Jena said...

whatsreal, thank you for the kind words! My secret desire is to have a book someday, I just don't have a clue how to go about that. :)

And I'd love for you to link to me, anytime. Thank you!

lydia said...

Jena ~ Been reading your blog for awhile now and I really love it!! This article was hugely helpful for me!! I am so on the same page as you and I needed to hear someone who has done it all along and now has a grown child moving on to college and life! That is so encouraging! Some times I think I just need support from others to keep going!!

Grace and peace to you!!

Roshni said...

Hi! I came via Simple Mom to your blog and am just loving your thought!

First of all, your daughter is so talented! Those roses are just exquisite!!

Okay, I am from India and if you have ever heard about the school system there, you would know that its brutal. Not just teachers, parents and society as a whole expects you not only to cope but to excel. We had weekly tests, daily assessments, and of course a grueling exam twice a year. I HATED school! But I loved to read and everything I know is from my reading books I was not required to read! (btw, I have a PhD in Biology)
Even having that knowledge at the back of my mind did not make me realise till I read your blog that your philosophy of learning is SO true!
Since I work (and love my job), I am not really ready to homeschool but I will definitely try and make sure my sons never feel the pressure to learn something which they are just not interested in! Thank you so much for such interesting reading!!

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