Homeschooling, a Report From the Trenches – Part 2, by N.C.
(Continued from Part 1.)
Three principles for educating your child
Educating your children is going to take a lot of investment. In beginning stages the things you need are free or cheap but you will need to invest a lot of time. As the student gets older the materials will cost more but each student will be capable of more independent work. Regardless of where they are on that journey some principles will always be guiding you as you parent and teach. I’ll suggest 3: Homeschooling is a way of life. Follow and grow interest. Be brilliant in the basics.
Homeschooling is a way of life to prepare them for life
My wife took note of the three educational placemats on the table and jokingly told me that my homeschooler was showing. Then our kindergartner dropped a geographic fact into our dinner conversation that she had picked up from that placemat. Does that mean dinner and lunch count as instruction? Of course not, but she learned something outside of school hours because her environment as a whole is educational.
Homeschoolers sometimes take the practice of making things educational too far and suck the fun out of…well anything…but it’s because learning is never far away for homeschoolers. As with many things our old friend Aristotle has the right of it: too much or too little of a virtue is a vice. Sometimes though (this is still Aristotle) one vice is worse than another. His example uses Courage as the virtue, too little is cowardice and too much is foolhardiness. Of those vices cowardice is worse and so we err on the side of too much courage. For homeschooling, the error of too little education is worse than too much education and so the wise course is adding just a bit more education than you think is ideal.
While you’re adding in that education consider this quote:
“Children want to be treated like they’re slightly more intelligent than they are” ~ Eoin Colfer.
I would add “knowledgeable” but otherwise I don’t think the quote can be improved. Teach more than they need right now. Teach a little bit more than you think they can understand. Then come back and end with what they need. What you’re actually doing is throwing out pegs that they will hang things on later. You’re showing them where they will be going. You’re growing a desire to finish filling in the blanks later. You’re showing your confidence that they can reach that far.
That’s why I say it’s a lifestyle. You’ll be looking to build on their knowledge, to expand it, and you will find teachable moments everywhere. When you’re reading to your pre-schooler you’ll sound out a phonetic word, not because you expect them to start sounding out everything, but because it implants that concept. In a healthy homeschool, learning and discussing learning is the normal state of affairs. Don’t take it to the point where they hate playing games because you lecture about strictly dominated strategies in game theory but do take it to the point where they start to see the amazing network of connections all about them.
A final piece of advice in this point: keep your eye on “prepare them for life”. I’ve been generally disappointed by books parenting but one I thought was decent was “duct tape parenting” where the author makes the point that your child should be capable of independently navigating the world at 18, therefore they should have half those skills by age 9. That’s excessive but a very useful reality check. You’ve spent half your prep time by the time your child is 9 and the goal is a functioning adult at 18. Teach them, take advantage of every teachable moment, but remember the important thing is teaching them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in life.
Follow and grow their interests
Two quotations are relevant here:
“What we want to see is the child in pursuit of the knowledge not the knowledge in pursuit of the child.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
“He [Tom Sawyer] would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” ~ Mark Twain
I started with a plan to do a unit on nocturnal animals expecting my daughter to be interested in bats like her older sister or the adorable fennec fox. Instead, she was fascinated by scorpions and spiders. That was not my plan but that doesn’t matter. That’s what she found fun to learn about, that’s what she found interesting, that’s what kept school fun instead of drudgery, and so that’s what we learned about.
Note that I said: “what we learned about”. I wound up learning things about spiders that I didn’t know as I searched for information for her and proofed things for her. In order to keep our first principle of giving them slightly more than they need you will learn more about whatever subjects your children are learning. It also allows us to have conversations with our children about what they are learning and that helps turn an ember of interest into a flame of learning.
Initially, this is a tool (and sometimes trick) to get them excited about learning. Later, it becomes a tool so they can find the interesting point of whatever they are assigned. In the beginning it’s 90% co-opting their existing interest and 10% assigning work but as they get older they will realize that they have assignments (60% you assigning) and only 40% them finding what is interesting in the assignment. That’s as it should be. They will each inevitably have to write a paper for a subject they think is stupid but if you have cultivated this skill, they will each be able to find something interesting and write a good paper. Students who have not learned this show their hatred of the work in the quality of the final product.
Throw a wide variety of things at them, see what strikes their interest, and go with it. In any subject they show interest in there is a wealth of things for them to learn. What is the history of the subject? Who were the important people? How does it (or might it) connect with math? It doesn’t matter if the subject is unicorns, the subject may be fantastical but the authors and painters are real people. The symbols are a part of our actual history (they feature prominently in medieval tapestries). The legend of Unicorns and Lions being enemies and the respective sigils of the Scottish and the English is a tie to history. And almost everything has some connection to math, if nothing else you can use the toy unicorns in your story problems. Use their interests and build with it and on it.
Brilliance in the basics
The single most powerful thing you can do is teach your child how to learn. If you can do that, you will start off a bootstrapping process that will take them to advanced education and beyond. The basics are the tools they need so they can teach themselves. Well done homeschooling gives them a solid foundation and the ability to learn. This is why homeschooling can be such a powerful educational tool. I’ll present three basics here.
The first basic skill: Reading. Read. Read. Read. And read some more. The best knowledge is in books. Your child’s ability to read books and find the knowledge they each need cannot be overstated. There’s more of course, there’s finding biases, finding conflicting information, primary sources vs secondary sources, incorrect consensuses (unless somebody wants to argue for the Ptolemic over the heliocentric view), all that good stuff. But you can’t think critically without having something to think about.
Your student needs to read until it’s second nature. Read until almost every word is a sight word. Read until they forget they are reading and instead are thinking about the content. Read until they’re lost in another world. Reading is just the means by which we get to ideas and information. If reading is painful for them, they won’t do it, and it will become increasingly punishing. Make sure they have fun reading, read aloud to them, have them read aloud. Yes, we have to make sure they are reading challenging books as they get older but first and foremost instill in them the love of reading. Reading is fundamental.
A second basic skill: Self-directed learning. This would come before reading except reading is a pre-requisite. Research assumes being able to read. It means searching online, reading books, watching documentaries, talking to available experts. It means learning new vocabularies and concepts and then using those new words in order to be: form better questions and find better answers. They have to learn how this system (whether it’s statistics or metal casting) functions. And don’t stop there: self-directed learning should also include mastery of a skill, whether it’s drawing or calligraphy or leatherwork or patisserie. We learn by doing; there is no other way.
A third basic skill: Learn how to communicate. This means writing. This means public speaking. This means conversation. This means debate (at least informal). This means critical thinking. It also actually means knowing when to shut up. Each student must know how to contribute the knowledge they’ve gained in an appropriate way. That also means social skills. At its heart these are all about communication.
Why does communication matter? Because knowledge without communication is indistinguishable from ignorance. Clear speaking, good writing, and clear notation in math are not optional and all are fundamentally forms of communication. Mastering material, condensing and distilling it, and then communicating it appropriately and effectively is a skill they’ll never outgrow.
This is not exhaustive list of basics but it’s enough to start. We barely touched on mathematics. Basic arithmetic (basic operations, fractions, decimals, percentages, negative numbers, single variable equations, order of operations, prime factorization) is to mathematics what phonics are to reading. They are basics you need to advance. The student will also need them to just balance a budget. A basic understanding of history is also vital, both world history and national history. An understanding of the scientific method and the agreed upon scientific principles is important. I also think that philosophy/theology and worldview matters but I’m more in a minority there. Start with the basics we all agree on then branch from there. If they can employ the basics brilliantly, then whatever they need to learn will be readily mastered and applied.
We covered a lot of ground this second article so let’s recap: 3 principles to guide you.
1. Homeschooling is a way of life to prepare them for life.
Surround them with educational materials and don’t miss teachable moments. Educational things and discussions aren’t special things, they’re normal. This is your new way of life. The family has fun learning together.
2. Follow their interests
Help them expand their interests. Everything is connected and as teachers we help them follow these connections and eventually accumulate basic knowledge. We also load the die every now and again to keep things adequately educational.
3. Brilliance in the Basics
Reading. Self-Directed Learning. Communication. Those three things are of paramount importance. These are basic skills they need to practice k-12. Your curriculum choices serve these basic skills which they will use no matter where they go.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 3.)