Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thoughts on school and learning.


Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~William Butler Yeats

I'm a neophyte (is there anything lower than a neophyte?) in the topic of cognition, brain development and learning. But it's something that is interesting me greatly as I try to decide what is the best way to educate my kids. My thoughts are scattered, "all over the place" and hard to put down in writing but they are starting to coalesce.

I'm becoming more and more in favor of encouraging child led learning as much as possible. If you watch young toddlers and preschoolers it is obvious that they follow their curiosity and this leads to learning. We see this from the youngest baby who reaches out to touch mother's face, to the infant who rocks forward to reach a bit farther and to the toddler who learns to walk to reach even more interesting and distant objects. For the slightly older, verbal child there are the constant queries of "what's this?", and "why?". Clearly children are self motivated beings.

Early education experts know that the best learning will happen when a child is allowed access to many activities, indoors and outdoors, with minimal teacher intervention. Many preschools (although not nearly enough) are designed with just this free learning mind. Play and experimentation are encouraged, traditional "academics" are minimized in these preschools. Somehow though, by the time they head off to school, we as a culture seem to have forgotten that kids are self learners. We ask that children stop learning at their own pace, following their own interests, and instead expect them to learn WHAT we tell them to, WHEN we tell them to, and HOW we tell them. It's shouldn't be surprising that some many kids have a hard time with traditional school.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I consider my sons education. EJ has always enjoyed school. It doesn't seem right to take him out if he is enjoying it. On the other hand, I really have to bite my tongue to not undermine his teacher when I find out that he only got 5 minutes of free time today because he wasn't 'behaving'. My kid isn't perfect. He's 6, impulsive sometimes, often fidgety, having trouble sitting still while working. He enjoys reading but hates writing. He's also bright, possesses a very logical mind and is endlessly curious. It upsets me that they have so little free time as it is, no recess today, no phys ed., just one measly hour of "Friday Free-Time" and between class behavior and his own he lost all but 5 minutes of it. How much of this can a kid take before deciding this school stuff isn't fun? What child doesn't deserve to have free play simply because he talked out of turn too many times, or fidgeted around in his chair too much? Isn't that child likely to be one that will in fact benefit most from having some unstructured time to "get all the wiggles and jiggles" out before heading back to the desk for some work?

When I first decided that I wanted to home school I felt guilty for making the decision about what I wanted and only thought about what my son would want as an after thought. I'm starting to feel better about that though after a few conversations with EJ recently. He seems to be enjoying first grade less. It's hard to say exactly why. I'm sure it's the lack of play time. The focus on drilling phonics, spelling lists and sight words that just isn't very exciting. There was a time when I would have felt that this was just part of life and growing up. But somewhere along the way I've realized that maybe this isn't the way it should be. That this is the "establishment" telling us the way it should be and we parents are just buying into the idea. Or maybe we don't buy it but feel powerless to change the system. I used to feel that way. I used to feel that as long as a school was pretty good, the building not crumbling down, teachers were dedicated, etc. that it would be better to work within the system to change it rather than abandon it. But that was before I had a school aged child. Now my focus is where it needs to be, on MY children and what is best for them.

As Alfie Kohn states in his 2004 article "Feel-Bad Education. The cult of Rigor and Loss of Joy"

Why are our schools not places of joy? Because too many of us respond to outrageous edicts by saying, "Fine."

At this point I can get lost in my various thoughts about why I want my kids out of traditional/public schools. But Kohn's article gets to the heart of it for me. Kids learn better, more deeply, more joyfully when they are excited, interested and engaged. If my boys could get this from public school I'd be first in line. But they won't get this from traditional school and so for now I will continue to explore alternative solutions.


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