Saturday, 12 October 2013

Homeschooling My Gifted Kid Part 1: How Learning Happens

The path we have taken to get to homeschool the way we do has been rather convoluted. It is a path that has had some peculiar turns, as I have discovered more about the nature of the way children learn, and the differences between how most children learn and the way my two bundles of joy learn.
I thought I might, in the next few posts, take everyone on a journey to a few of the sign-posts along the way that have led us to our own personal homeschool experience.
This is not intended to be a guide for anyone interested in homeschooling. There are many upon many resources for that. This is just a personal journey.

Part 1:  How Learning Happens

How To Homeschool?

Now when I first thought about homeschooling, I thought that I knew what learning looked like. I mean, I'd learned hadn't I? Everyone I knew had gone to school, and they learned there. That didn't mean I knew a thing about teaching. Oh, I'd run a few tutorial classes, even ran a maths help desk for uni students, but teaching? Blank slate. So I decided to find out what I needed to know to teach C and (eventually) J.



Parenting books, teachers manuals, homeschool guides. Each one managing to contradict the others, each one completely sure about how to teach your kid to use a potty, or learn cursive, or how to do maths. And each one completely different. Once I stepped into the world of homeschooling, there were literally dozens of different philosophies on what was the best method to teach children. Charlotte Mason vs Unschool? Classical vs. Eclectic? And on, and on.

Being me, I could not leave it at 'well, just pick one'. So I dug deeper. What did the research say? What do the people who spend there time figuring out how small (and not so small) children think believe is the best way to teach children?

And this is where it gets interesting. And anti-common sense. And down-right 'but that can't work, surely?'.

What does the Research Say?

Learning doesn't happen the way I thought it did. Now, I'd like everyone who is reading this to pause now, and go watch this TED talk by Sugata Mitra. He's a researcher at Newcastle University, UK, working on self-organised learning. He designed a series of experiments to test the limits of how much instruction and guidance children in third world countries needed to get a good education. As he explains, he was trying to prove how much these programs needed good teachers on the ground in these locations.
What was surprising for me, and this is backed up by further studies, is that all children really need to get as good an education as the best private schools, is access to knowledge, time to play and explore with it, and someone on the sidelines willing to listen and cheer them on. Have a think about it. It's damn radical. But it's backed up by peer-reviewed research.

These ideas are not new. Most of his ideas have been espoused by homeschooling pioneer John Holt. His seminal works 'How Children Learn' and 'How Children Fail', written in the '80s, have been an influential part of educational research and the homeschooling movement for decades, and are available in most university education libraries. His ideas feed directly into the unschooling ( or natural learning ) philosophy espoused by many homeschoolers.

Getting out of the way.

First page of Chapter 2 of C's book on his
 own power-board design
This video, by famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson is worth a watch. And it's easy to see it everyday with small children - they love pulling things apart. C's fascination at the moment is with power boards. If you see C lying down in a store, chances are it's got nothing to do with being tired, and everything to do with studying the power boards and wall switches in the store. My other half spent time with him pulling an old broken one apart. We've also spent many hours together studying catalogues of power boards online. He's even written three chapters of a book on his own design of power boards!

Getting out of the way doesn't mean leaving them alone - it means actively engaging with their interests, becoming a mentor and facilitator.

This approach is considered best practice with most early childhood research. Which is why most preschools focus on play-based learning. Kids learn best when they can actively engage with material in their own way, in their own time.

This is a philosophy which teachers at the coal-face have understood for years, but have found it almost impossible to put into practice due to the requirements for more and more student testing, which severely limits their ability to be flexible, and well, be treated like professionals.

Though this is slowly changing. Finland's school system is one of the places this philosophy has been applied - children are not tested until late in high-school, teachers are not only required to have a masters degree, but are in complete charge of the curriculum and methods of teaching. They are even given time to research best-practice, have support people in the classroom, and individualize learning plans for each student.They are treated like experts who know what they are doing without being micro-managed.

Another place this is changing is through some schools adopting a 'Google model'. Where 80% of school-time is on a set-curriculum, and 20% on a project of the child's choice.

And of course, there is always the Sudbury schools, which have been going long enough now ( 40+ years), to have some real data on their effectiveness.This article by one of the studies authors, Dr Peter Gray from Boston College, is a less edu-speak summary of the results.

The thing is, testing kids to see if they're learning is actually detrimental to children's education. It limits learning to what can be put on a test - and encourages what has come to be called 'teaching to the test' (See also this link). It also impacts on a teacher's ability to be flexible in the classroom with how to teach a lesson. It also has some other nasty side-effects - for example, children who have special needs are exempt from NAPLAN testing, but may choose to do so, though results from these tests do not separate special needs students results, which the media reports, gives schools an incentive to encourage students to not take the test to improve school results. As well, gifted children are often refused acceleration because their test results are helping to prop up their schools scores.

Our Homeschool Experience with 'Testing'

This testing idea segues into my own experience homeschooling C. He is a beautifully recalcitrant child, with a well-developed sense of humour, who descends into babble if anyone tries to get information out of him he doesn't want to give. So scratch out spot quizzes, written tests, or anything that smacks of 'so what did you learn today?'.

In fact, I have watched my boy unlearn multi-digit multiplication. He mastered it quickly, and then when confronted with an online maths program that emphasized repetition, proceeded to unlearn it - as the program undermined his confidence. It took a lot of encouragement and about 6 months before he was willing to believe that he could do it again. This is not uncommon, but is backed up by research on how gifted kids learn.

The main problem I've had with all this is letting go of my desire to make sure he's learning. A decent record of what he's done helps. And the happiness that comes from letting him follow his passions, wherever they may lead.

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