I love educational philosophy. It’s one of my very favorite topics. In fact, I often will go to the library with the intention of picking up something fiction (I rarely read fiction anymore, and for some reason feel guilty about that) and come home with three or four non-fiction titles about learning, schooling, teaching, etc.
For several years, I’ve been trying to pin down a definition for my own educational philosophy. For a while I thought I was an “unschooler,” totally down with the belief that kids learn best when they direct their own education and learn what they are interested in. I still hold this philosophy close to my heart, but there are several reasons I hesitate to label myself with the term. One reason is the “unparenting” that seems to have latched itself onto unschooling, and another is the fact that my eldest really thrives on having some kind of imposed structure.
It’s that last part—my eldest—who has presented the most challenge to my definition of an ideal learning experience. For example, she really does like to do “school” in a very structured way. She likes worksheets. Math manipulatives tend to confuse her more than help her. She wants me to give her grades (which I refuse to do, other than as part of “playing school”).
I really want the kids to follow their curiosities, to delve deeply into whatever they’re interested in, to see learning as a natural and enjoyable part of daily living. Marrying these two somewhat dichotomous ideas (structured school and free learning) has been a dance we’ve been doing for years.
Then, the other day, I really got myself organized and had a full morning of schooly-school, per the girls’ request. The Muse loved it. Dolittle loved it as long as she had all of my attention. (That attention thing is also a tricky dance.) We had some singing and prayer time, a virtue lesson (self-discipline), multiplication drill and fraction practice for The Muse, an addition game for Dolittle, Greek root words, and a chapter in Story of the World about the Middle Kingdom of Egypt. All well received.
Then I thought The Muse would like to learn about haiku. There were a couple of pages about haiku in one of our workbooks. For some reason, The Muse began scoffing at the whole thing. Now, according to my “philosophy” I wouldn’t normally push it. But I really thought she’d enjoy it once she got into it. Scoff scoff scoff. A few tears even, when she couldn’t figure out how to answer one of the questions about the poem (even after we had talked it to death—she was making it much harder than it actually was). It came time to write her own haiku, one about each season. More scoffing. We’ll do it together, I said. Scoff. Just start, I said. OK. I momentarily questioned whether I was completely destroying her love of learning by pushing this one topic. But my gut said she needed the push. Lo and behold, as soon as she started writing, her attitude did a complete 180. She LOVED it. She wrote the three haiku all on her own, and proudly read each one to me. She said she loved it. I knew she would love it. I KNEW it. If I hadn’t been sure, I wouldn’t have pushed it. We would have saved it for another time. But I know her. I know when the frustration is insurmountable and when it’s stubbornness or some kind of block that needs to be pushed through. I know when something is right up her alley, even if she can’t see it yet.
So, my big epiphany? I can write out the most eloquent, well-thought-out philosophy about how kids learn best and what education means. But at the end of the day, it’s not so much about educational philosophy. It’s about knowing your student. When what she needs or whatever we’re doing that is working goes against some ideal philosophical picture I have in my mind, I need to remember that. Every kid has a unique set of needs, abilities, learning styles, personality, and relationship to whatever they are learning. The advantage of homeschooling is that I KNOW my kids. I’ve been watching them learn since they were born. No educational philosophy is going to encompass all kids, or even both of my kids who are old enough for “school.” I can incorporate child-led, delight-driven learning into our approach to education, but what that looks like is going to depend on the kid. For my eldest, it means giving her the structure and school-like routine that she craves, while also giving her plenty of free time for imaginative play, musical improvisation, drawing, and other creative pursuits. For my middle, it means letting her gallop like a horse most of the day, finding her horseback riding lessons, helping her learn to read at her pace, and helping her develop the math skills she clearly has an aptitude for. For my youngest, I’m sure it’ll mean something completely different.
I can’t tell you how freeing this epiphany has been for me this week. It’s funny how we can glom onto a philosophy or method (or even a rejection of such things) and feel weird doing things that, on paper, go against it—even if it’s really the best things for all involved. This is why labels can be limiting. On the other hand, labels do help give a sense of identity to our experience, one that we can use to connect with other people of similar mindsets. But that’s another discussion for another day. I’ve philosophized enough for today.