What Is Education? Part 3: My Evolving Ideas about Education

What Is Education? Part 3: My Evolving Ideas about Education

A response to some questions Michele’s been asking about homeschooling.

I now return to the series of blog posts that got interrupted by Lent, Easter and many other distractions.

See Part 1 and Part 2 for more background and explanation of the origins of this series.

“How have your ideas about education evolved and changed over time (if they have)?”

I don’t think of my ideas about education as set in stone. They are constantly changing and evolving as I grow and learn more and especially now that I’m a mother as I observe my children grow and learn. However, I think the seeds of my ideas were planted early and are rooted deeply. I’ve never done an about face, though; everything I think now can be traced back to my own early experiences as a student.

I’ve always been something of an educational rebel. I learned to read early and first challenged the educational system when I was in kindergarten and the teacher tried to prevent those of us who could already read from reading in class because she didn’t want us to make those who couldn’t read feel uncomfortable. My parents advocated on my behalf and, with the help of other concerned parents, got the school to create another kindergarten class for kids who could read. 

In elementary school I used to be the first to finish my lessons in class and would smuggle a book under my desk to read in the down time before the next lesson started. I spent much of those years being bored, waiting for everyone else to catch up. Though I’d probably have told you I liked school because I did like learning and generally didn’t mind waiting for others to catch up as long as the teacher was willing to overlook my under the table amusements.

The idea of an education that is paced to each child’s needs, that allows children to explore on their own and doesn’t require them to merely mark time waiting for others to catch up would have thrilled me then. I suppose one reason I’m drawn to homeschooling is I think it allows for the kind of education I wish I’d been able to have: more time to read, to follow rabbit trails of interesting ideas, more time to dream and play outdoors, more time to do crafts, and more time to be around my family.

My first experience of going at my own pace was in 6th grade math. I loved it. I raced through the book doing the problems, checking my own work, taking the tests as soon as I’d finished the lessons, and not held back by the slower kids in the class. And I wished all classes could be self-paced. When I saw what I liked, I recognized ti at once. I only vaguely apprehended that there might be a second road that allowed all learning to be like this one class; but it did creat a yearning in my heart.

In high school I had one teacher, for American history, who ditched the textbook and taught by lecture and primary sources like a college class. It was a wonderful experience. He was passionate about the material and communicated that passion to us. I wondered at the time why all our classes couldn’t be so fun. Later I started reading about homeschoolers who advocated teaching all history through biography and novel, through primary sources and through the eyes of those excited by the subject. Again it was a sense of recognition of something I’d long wanted but didn’t imagine existed.

When I was in high school and college I watched my younger siblings, who had some learning disabilities, struggling in school. I would get so angry and frustrated on their behalf: Why is my sister failing when it is clear even to the teacher that she knows the material, she just has problems keeping track of homework assignments and getting things in on time? Which is more important her knowing how to work the system or her actually learning the material? There is something very wrong with a system that cannot bend to her needs but instead breaks her because she cannot adapt, I thought.

I was convinced that knowledge was more important than grades. Even though I liked the affirmation of getting good grades, I preferred the excitement of making connections and exploring ideas and learning new things. I realized that there could be a vast disconnect between what one knows and understands and the tools that are supposed to measure that knowledge and understanding and it frustrated me. It seemed like no one could agree on the purpose of school. Was it conformity to an abstract set of rules and standards or was it learning, knowledge and ideas?

At about that time I remember writing lists in my notebooks, lists of countries I wanted to visit, languages I wanted to learn…. and lists of books that my kids would one day read. I assumed, you see, that they’d be in school. But I assumed as well that school might… overlook… some important aspects of their education, that I might need to fill in the blanks in the summers, on the weekends. And I assumed it would be up to me to be the captain directing the ship. I intuitively knew that I wanted to be the primary educator of my children even back then.

By the time I was in college I knew I wanted to be a teacher (well, like I’ve said before, I always wanted to be a stay at home mom but I decided that being a teacher was a both a good backup plan for while I was waiting for Mr Right and a more politically correct life-goal). Anyway, I spent much of the time both consciously and unconsciously taking notes on various instructors’ teaching techniques. What worked, what didn’t work? What would I do in their place?

When I finally had a college classroom all to myself, though, it was an incredibly frustrating experience. I was woefully unprepared by the one teaching composition class I’d taken, which was all abstract discussions of theory and no practical suggestions for lesson planning, creation of assignments, or grading. Very few of my students were where I thought they should be as entering freshmen and I felt that one semester was a terribly short period of time in which to make up for a lifetime’s inadequate instruction. The biggest problem was that few of my students were readers. How can a person who never reads ever really learn how to write? I was trying to perform a Herculean task and I was crippled by my lack of experience. It was one thing to have fine ideas, another thing to grapple with real human beings and their individual needs.

Over the next few years as I taught more and more, I learned a great deal from my experiences. Every class taught me more than I taught them. And I could never have come to an end of the learning. To that extent teaching was always an exciting adventure. But every semester I would get so very hung up on two things: my frustration at having such a limited time to work with my students—it always seemed like the semester would end just as we were getting somewhere—and my frustrations about grading. Oy! I started questioning the value of grades when I was in high school and have been whacking my head against that wall ever since. All I wanted to do was help my students become better writers, perhaps to help them enjoy the process of writing. And grades didn’t ever seem to help my achieve those goals, in fact they seemed to be one of the primary impediments. But I could write an entire blog post about the topic and I should probably leave it for later. In any case, I think grading is one of the primary reasons that while I miss teaching in a classroom at times, I don’t really look to going back. Instead, I’ve shifted my attention toward making my home a classroom, making learning a lifestyle for my family rather than a job.

I didn’t discover homeschooling until only a few years ago and when I did it was a revelation. I had no idea you could just get rid of the system and start from scratch. This was what I’d been looking for but never knew existed, never even dreamed could exist.

When I started to read about homeschooling and different educational philosophies my own experiences began to resonate with what I was reading. I began to realize I already had very definite ideas about education even before I found philosophies and methodologies to confirm my hunches and give me direction. So much of my reading has been trying to become more systematic in my approach and to fill in the blanks where I hadn’t considered various problems and issues. But I think my basic approaches have continued in the same direction from my earliest days to now. However, based on my experiences in the classroom, I know that the greatest challenges lie ahead. So far for me homeschooling is mostly a pipe dream. I’m standing on the seawall contemplating the day when we’ll descend to the beach and begin to really get our feet wet. I can smell the spray and see the waves but I have very little idea how my children will react to feel of sand and water, much less begin to chart a course for our expedition.

That said, when I went back to my blog archives to look at the book reviews I’ve posted I found my very first blog post on the topic of homeschooling, written in March of 06. I re-read that post and have glanced at many of the reviews I wrote three years ago, my voice then sounds different, odd, rather like hearing your own voice on an old home movie. it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I’ve changed in the past three years as I’ve followed many homeschooling friends’ adventures vicariously through their blogs and as I’ve watched my sister-in-law begin to homeschool my nieces. Being a mom has changed me, getting to know Isabella and Sophie has changed me. What we will be I can’t begin to imagine; but I do know it will defy any attempts at prognostication.

One thing is certain, however, I know my ideas will continue to grow and change as we get closer to making more formal decisions about curriculum. I know that my ideas will never stop evolving because education will be as much an adventure for me as it is for the children. I know from my experiences teaching college students that teaching challenges you, stretches you and transforms you. I’m looking forward to seeing where our adventure will take us.

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  • That is a very neat idea! It also sent me off at a tangent and I have finally written a post about how we have handled pocket money and allowances. I have been intending to do one for a long time – it has been so long I even had to check I hadn’t already written it and forgotten!

  • Just read your comment on my post (hmm, we seem to be having a conversation in two places simultaneously here!) … I have the opposite problem with Cherub, who loves to help, but is *not* being obedient – some major testing of boundaries going on at the moment. However, she rather likes money and squirrels pennies away in her purse. She hasn’t reached the stage of wanting money to spend yet, but I doubt it will be long as she has started playing “shops” with imaginary money. We’ll probably give her pocket money at four, because if she is like her sisters she will be beginning to understand coins and prices by then (our family has maths genes and Cherub looks as though she will pick up numbers easily like her sisters).

    Thinking it through, the downside of giving a reward for routine good behaviour (or as an incentive to avoid bad behaviour) is probably the same as the downside of linking allowances directly to chores. Maybe just doing the coin thing to encourage extra effort in Advent or Lent would be the equivalent of paying for extra chores. When it comes to behaviour I’m all for incentives when a child needs helping over a particular hump – potty training, or freak outs over orthodontic braces, or occasionally a particular bad behaviour – but the regular stuff is just expected (not always achieved, mind you!).

  • And I was thinking of making my comment from your post into a separate post over here. Won’t that muddy the waters?