Homeschooling is not what you think...

Even before the controversial Fr. Stravinskas quotes appeared on OSV this week I had homeschooling heavily on the brain. It usually is since educating one's own requires constant active discernment, but I have been particularly focused for two reasons: First, it's the end of the school year and time to take a look at what we achieved; and second, it's time to begin planning again for next year.

As I've been reading and observing, organizing and planning, one thing has repeatedly occurred to me...

Homeschooling is not what most people imagine it to be.

Most people in America (myself included) have lived and breathed one particular system of education for the entirety of our formative years and into our adulthood. Many never left it and now have careers teaching in it, working in administration or promoting it. It is difficult for us to imagine learning any other way. And yet, I've discovered something about teaching through homeschooling that has surprised me and challenged the way I view education.

I am learning as I go that it is far more productive to gently hold a child's hand while he struggles than to glue him to the desk chair for a set period of time to get it right or fail. Taking an extra day or week or month to grasp material instead of cramming for the A results in better understanding. Interest-led learning always results in a greater knowledge of the material and a motivated student. But the greatest lesson I have learned this year is that my own understanding of the subject has far less to do with a child's success than I previously thought... far less than most people imagine. I have been surprised this year to discover that the "subjects" at which my oldest children do best are lessons that I have not specifically taught them. Don't get me wrong; they have had many little "lessons" along the way from one source or another, not the least of which is parental example... but the learning has been almost entirely self-directed. An example...

I taught Latin to Professor on and off from 3rd through 5th grade. It was plodding work. He liked it and learned a little but eventually lost interest and we stopped because I was not motivated enough to keep pushing and pushing. I planned on revisiting the subject later on in his academic career. This year (7th grade) he picked it up again completely on his own, motivated by his interest in the liturgy. I handed over the teacher manual and DVD's and gave him the very detailed and careful instructions to "go to town!" He works at it off and on. Instead of scheduling his quizzes, I print a unit's worth at a time and give them to him all at once. He takes them at his pace and self-checks. When he is ready for the test, he let's me know, I hand it to him, grade it when he's finished and return it to him to file. His current grade is a high A and more importantly, he understands and retains what he's learning. Our interactions go something like this:

Do you think you'll be ready for a test soon?
Yes, within the week.
How about Monday? If you're ready, I'd like to have you take it then.
Sure, my quizzes are done. I know the grammar perfectly and just have to review the vocabulary.


Are you ready for the test?
No, but maybe next week. I have one more quiz and have one thing I want to look up.

Just so the reader has full information... I (his teacher) do not know Latin.

There are many other examples of school "subjects," life skills and extra-curricular interests in which he has far exceeded the knowledge of his teacher by his own efforts. His dad and I can show him what we know or provide a book but it is by his own initiative that he excels. Another example...

Several years ago, Chief showed Professor how to tie a couple basic knots that are used in the fire service. Shortly after, I convinced a family member to purchase a knot tying book as a gift for the boy. She objected that the subject was not "fun" enough and I agreed; it would be completely and utterly boring to me... but the boy would love it. I was right. It has become a well-loved book and Professor has far exceeded his dad's knot-tying knowledge, regularly peppering us with information about the history and function of different knots. Just yesterday, he tied up a large cylindrical canister from the kitchen to demonstrate how sailors used to hoist barrels onto ships. Is it interesting to me? Sadly, no... not really. Does that matter? No, not at all.

Just today, Professor discovered an error in his knot-tying tome. Are you sure? Absolutely. Let me show you. They skipped a step in the illustrations. So now, he is busy writing a letter to the author to let him know.

He also discovered The International Guild of Knot Tyers (who knew?) and is paying for his first year of membership. This is strange to me only because I have never considered it before. And as a consequence of his knot tying knowledge, he has provided me with numerous solutions to household problems over the years... because I do not know how to do useful things with knots.

I use Professor as my primary example because he has already mastered the fundamental building blocks of education (reading, writing, basic math) and is now ready to do more advanced exploring on his own. But I can see similar qualities in his siblings and I have been making a conscious effort to step away while they learn so that they might enjoy the same experience of self-directed mastery. Younger children need more guidance with certain things but they are capable of more under their own direction as well. In the last couple of months, instead of constantly barking out educational orders, I have been heard more frequently saying, "Do you need me for anything?" And guess what? Our homeschool is more productive than it ever has been.

Am I an unschooler? No. I have specific short-term and long-term goals for the kids and they know it. I give grades for the primary subjects (I can't fathom grading physical education or art -- that's like grading recess in this house). I plan our course of study (and adapt as necessary). I don't have a name for our educational methodology. It is always changing according to the needs of the student.

What might surprise many people about homeschooling is that the reason it succeeds is not because it is school on steroids (lower student to teacher ratio, blah, blah, blah)... but because it properly orders priorities. What is the purpose of education? For us, education means increasing knowledge and understanding of those things which bring us nearer to our life goals. We do not live for school. We fit education into life. Learning has purpose which means that it is enjoyable (although challenging) and even children will pursue it with energy. THAT is why homeschooling works.

People like Father Stravinskas believe that I am not capable of teaching my kids every single thing they need to learn and consequently, should not be home educating. He's right that I can't do it all, but his error is that he misunderstands the role of the teacher. I succeed as a teacher not because I know everything at all times, but because I know and love the child and can lead him to discover the many things that he needs to learn. Easy? No way. It requires great diligence and love. But ultimately, I do all these things by the grace of God, Who knows and loves my kids better than I ever could... and under Whose patronage my homeschool thrives.

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." 
~Albert Einstein
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under "home education", "homeschooling".