Saturday, April 19, 2008

child-led learning: try it, you'll like it

This is a post for those who think letting the child's interests, academic needs, and questions lead a homeschool curriculum is too much work. I hope to demonstrate that in fact, it is the very opposite. All it requires is that you don't already have anything planned, or you're willing to drop it from time to time, and that you're paying attention when your child is talking.

Example the first.

A few weeks ago, Little and I were looking through my alumni magazine, in which was featured an artist working in mosaics. Little asked, "What's a mosaic?" I love this age (5), because there are so many interesting things he doesn't know about yet. I explained that it's a picture made by sticking many small pieces of something to a surface. It can be tile, glass, ceramic, what have you. Then we got out the paints and paper and completely painted several pieces of paper a few basic colors, and then some not-so-basic colors. I wish I could show you pictures of this stage, but those images are on Joe's computer.

After the sheets of color had dried, we cut them into squares roughly 1" across. Then Little and I made mosaics. We just stuck our paper "tiles" onto big pieces of butcher paper.

Here's Little's:

And here's mine:

Big made one too (his included some small old bits of toys and various household flotsam) but he gave it to the wedding couple out in LA.

Example the second.

I have been teaching a small hands-on science class to a group of homeschooled kids. There are seven kids. The youngest is 5 and the oldest is 11. We started with a meeting in which I told them what sorts of resources I had available and which topics we could study, and they decided to start by learning about air and air pressure. Which is what we have done, once a week for about a month.

Last week, several of the kids were digging around in my garden before class started, and they found what they were absolutely convinced were worm eggs. I was not so convinced, but I kept my skepticism to myself and they continued to explore and investigate. This week, when I was planning for our science class, I realized that there was potential for an interesting science project at the intersection of their conviction (that these little gray balls were worm eggs) and my skepticism (no way, they've gotta be seeds).

This week, we gave the weird little gray balls some soil and water:

You can't see them, they're buried.

We articulated some theories about what we think the little gray balls might be, and made some predictions about what the outcome might be with each of our theories. The class, like any class, has widely ranging literacy abilities, so I did the writing and the kids did the talking.

And that's all there is to it. There are some kinds of curriculum for which a parent or a teacher's biggest job is to pay attention and then get out of the way. I really believe that kids will ask the questions that lead to the experiences they need.

Important caveat: I think it would be a big mistake to let a child's natural curiosity about something like long division lead the math curriculum. At least in my house: Big would never get there. But I find that I need to do relatively little of this sort of parent-imposed learning, because so much of what the boys are curious about leads us naturally into intellectually robust curriculum.

And it's not a lot of work. In fact, I think it's got to be less work than following a science curriculum or an art curriculum. It's just fun. The day we made the mosaics, we did art for three hours straight.

And I bet you Little will never forget what mosaic means.


Anonymous said...

Sometimes when I imagine homeschooling, I get stopped by the thought, how can I teach if I don't know everything (or can't remember what I used to know)? But I suppose that's what the public library is for! And really, the thinking skills and love of learning are the important lessons, because if the kids have those, then they can learn whatever they want or is necessary.

For me, homeschooling seems like work only if I imagine having to replicate the structure of a school at home, whether that's using a predesigned curriculum, or having some method of testing. But for child-led or unschooling, my fear would be that the kids wouldn't learn everything they need. But I see how you are balancing that with some parent-led teaching, such as with math.

I would be interested to hear about whether you have any specific goals for your sons, any milestones that you would like them to pass by a certain age, etc. Essentially, how you will gauge how they are doing. Or if you have something else you are measuring, either qualitative or quantitative.

Sandy said...

Ok, this is inspiring. Even though I teach high schoolers, and we don't do science, I'm tempted to take them somewhere to dig in dirt. Sadly, that's not really the point.
My summer project: how to use the education principles I believe in, to teach in the public system I work in.