Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I used to think... now I think

[This is a reflective essay that I was asked to write. We were asked to look at our own learning and teaching and discuss how how views have changed. This is based on the Connect...Extend...Challenge routine where you connect to what you know, extend your knowledge, and then look at places where you are still challenged.]

I am a non-traditional teacher. To date, I have not received any formal training in teaching yet, all I do is teach. I am a private voice teacher and choral director by trade. I am a homeschooling mom who co-owns a homeschool cooperative. (A cooperative is a gathering of homeschool families for group learning. My cooperative hosts approximately 25 families and 50 - 60 children ranging in age from infant to 13).  My education in teaching has been on-the-job. In fact, it could be considered trial by fire! I must be doing something right as my daughter thrives as a homeschooler, my classes at the cooperative fill to capacity, and my voice students happily refer me to their friends. 

This Coursera class establishes that I do know what I am doing. I realized this past week that I intuitively figured out what works well. Now I have a name for the concepts, and the holes in my methodology are being plugged. I was most intrigued by the discussions around child-led learning.

Before my daughter was born, I didn't believe there was such a thing as true child-led learning. When I went to school, the teacher told us what we were going to learn and then we did it through assigned reading, exercises, and projects. With the exception of picking my electives in high school, I did not get a say in my learning until college. Homeschooling opened my eyes to so many possibilities for how children learn in general but it still took me time to truly let my daughter have a say in the process.

Creating a partnership in learning
The decision to homeschool happened around my daughter's third birthday. By that point, she had proven herself verbally and mathematically ahead of the curve. She could already read, hold intelligent conversations, skip count, and do simple arithmetic. The final tipping point came when she regularly came into the kitchen while I was trying to cook dinner and started asking really great questions about a variety of topics. My instinct told me to drop what I was doing and help her figure it out, but I did not want to burn dinner. Thus started "school" for us where we sat down daily for a little while and explored her questions.

As she got older, the schooling became more formal. I picked various curricula and created my own when I found something lacking. She happily progressed. Recently, I returned to our earlier model, giving her more control over her education. She and I now work together to pick what she learns and how she learns it. Since we started doing this, her enthusiasm for learning has skyrocketed

My homeschool cooperative is also child-led. For each 8-week session, the children are given the opportunity to suggest topics of study and then vote on which classes will run. The resulting classes do not look like any "standard" class, but are filled with rich, cross-curricular content.

The discussion about the teacher in Cambridge in the fourth class video in the second week mirrors my own experience of going from delivering curriculum to becoming learning partners with my daughter and the children at the cooperative.  Within the cooperative, my business partner and I find ourselves at various stages of this process with several of the children. Some kids naturally took to the idea of choice while others are shy about voicing their opinions. A few are downright paralyzed by the amount of choice they receive.  We continue work at it with them, but at least in a few instances, our model doesn't match the model the children are experiencing at home for their education.

What is Worth Learning?
Of everything that I have absorbed from this course, the most challenging for me was the short David Perkins video, "What is Worth Learning?".  I struggle with this every day with my daughter. While I have given her control, I still insist that we cover certain material: math, grammar and writing, science, history, etc. For science and history, for example, she can choose the focus if she wishes else I have material at the ready. For math, she picked the curriculum and we work through it together. Each subject area offers her choices in approach and, often times, specific topic. If left to her own devices, how much of this would she actually choose to do? I don't have an answer to this, but I suspect several subjects wouldn't make the cut. 

Perkins raises the question that rattles around in the back of my head every week when I look at the week's school plans. How much of this stuff is really worth learning? I believe that if she specifically asked for it, then it is worth it because it interests her. The concept of "unschooling" among the homeschooling community addresses this by allowing the learning to be completely child-led. The children learn what interests them. Parents help find resources if necessary, but the rest is in the child's hands. A study published in Psychology Today found that unschooled children grew up to be productive members of society with college degrees and a variety of jobs. ("Survey of Grown Unschoolers, Part 3: Pursuing Careers", Peter Gray, Ph.D., Psychology Today (online article), 6/21/2014).

While Perkins was not specifically talking about unschooling, the question still applies. These unschoolers learned to learn and think on their own. In some ways, as Perkins suggests we do with the traditional topics, these unschoolers taught themselves lessons for their future. Maybe we should ask, "What is worth learning and is it specific to the person doing the learning?" 

I started reflecting on my own learning when we began homeschooling. This course gives me new angles to ponder. When I look at my daughter and her homeschooled friends, it makes me sad about how I was taught. I was often bored and uninspired in school. My interests and learning style were rarely taken into account. Children deserve more than that and my goal is to do my part to achieve this.

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