Friday, April 25, 2008

who's in charge around here?

Another great question from anthromama in the comments:

When you allow the children to lead, will they grow up thinking that they only need to study or do what they want?

My children would die laughing to think that someone out there in cyberspace wonders if they get to do whatever they want, whenever they want. Just rolling. On the floor. Laughing.

Here's how it goes in my house. In the morning, after Big has dressed and eaten and done his morning chores (NB: ideal version), he and I get ready to do school. I don't say to him: "Gee, honey, do you think you might like to do school today?" or even, "When do you think we might do some school today?"

Instead, I say something like this: "Let's get ready for some school. I'd like you to do another topic in your math book today, and I want you to do some writing. You also need to practice your recorder. Which one of those thing do you want to do first?"

Let's say he chooses writing. Fine. I'll say "Great. Do you want to write in your journal today, or do you want to write on the computer?" He already knows that, except in some very specific and unusual circumstances, he can write about anything he wants. He wrote a long fairy tale through most of the winter, he's been writing poems lately, and he has several stories started on the computer.

So he goes off and does those things. Some of it he can do on his own. I make sure I'm around and not distracted when he's doing math, because he needs that support, but he doesn't need or want my help when he practices his recorder. He has only recently been willing to show me his writing, but I've been surreptitiously monitoring it all winter, and I will use his writing to work up more teacher-directed curriculum.

For example, I noticed that he was confusing plurals, possessives, and contractions in his writing, so we sat down one morning and learned about what the differences are, how they look, how they are used. Then over the next few days, we came up with lists of words in each category. He doesn't confuse them anymore.

It's child-led because we wouldn't have covered this topic if he hadn't shown that he was confused about it and needed to learn it. It's teacher-directed because I noticed he needed it and created the work that would address it.

Another example: we have struggled to find a good way to do math. It is clear to me that we have to do math every day, and that there has be some time built in for skills practice. At first I thought I could just come up with the curriculum on my own, but it turns out I'm not so smart when it comes to math. I can figure out where his skills are lacking, and I can come up with problems that address those skills, and I can teach him how to solve those problems. And that turned out to be the most boring approach ever invented to any subject. He was bored, I was bored, and it was just ugly. We had some books of math puzzle books, which require good problem-solving thinking, but that was spotty and not enough.

After I blogged about this struggle, Shaun recommended Ed Zaccaro's Challenge Math books. (Thanks Shaun!) These books have pretty much saved our lives, math-wise. They're fun, they're comprehensive, they're challenging. Big One loves them. This is the first time he's had fun in math since our beloved school closed, and I made the decision to leave our wonderful math curriculum behind.

So (just to draw this connection again) it's child-centered because I was listening to his concern and heeding his frustration, all the time knowing that we needed to do math in some kind of way. I could have just said, "Look, we've got to do math and this is the way I've decided to do it." I could also have said, "Oh never mind, I guess Big One isn't meant to do math in life. We'll just drop it." But I listened to him, knew we needed math in our lives, and kept looking, so we found something good.

anthromama goes on to say:

...I have personally observed homeschool parents who essentially constantly defer to their children, which in my experience is bewildering for the child and the opposite of empowering. The general Waldorf view is that children need adults to have natural authority--not authoritarian, but authoritative. I wonder how child-led learning could work with that.

I've personally observed some homeschooling families like that, too. I've also observed plenty of school-going children who are calling the shots, and whose parents are falling all over themselves to comply with the child's latest demand. This is just not a feature of child-led learning. It's a parenting style, although I hesitate to call it parenting at all.

I agree that this so-called parenting style is upside down and backwards, and that children need to know there are limits, and that you're there to hold the line. That doesn't mean you're not watching them to see how things are going, and it doesn't mean you're ruling every little detail of their lives by decree.

Children need to be listened to, and they need to know that they have some power in the home. But not all of it.


Evenspor said...

Another great post, Elsie Thanks for the examples of a balanced approach to child-led learning.

You last comment is an especially interesting point. My mother-in-law teaches high school, and there are numerous students in her classes that fit your description. I had never made that connection before, though.

Anonymous said...

Very good explanation. We like Challenge Math as well. And I've posted a lot of my thoughts on what to do next if you want to go through them when you get there. :-)

If Big One starts to fight about the math every day thing, I have had some success with math 4 out of 5 days. Tigger gets to pick the day off. So she gets one "pass" a week. Some days she'll just say "Can I have a pass on math today."

Also, keep an eye out for other homeschooling moms doing interesting things with geometry and art (or figure out how to do one yourself). Tigger is doing one of those right now and loving it.

elsie deluxe said...

Hi ladies, and thanks for your comments. I have lots of thoughts about how to get a child's questions to become curriculum, so I'll undoubtedly keep writing about it.

JoVE, thanks. I'm hoping the Zaccaro stuff will keep us going for the next two years or so. (We started with the Primary book). I'll definitely be look for the next solution down the road.

Tara said...

Very nice post. I have a feeling I'll be referring back to it again as we being our own homeschooling efforts. I see so many parents dictating every facet of their child's life (down to the clothes they wear!) and find it just plain silly. As children grow and are able to make more decisions for themselves, they should be given that opportunity.

Amy said...

Great post. I love when you are specific. One way to distinguish child-led and child-manipulated education/parenting would be to say that the latter listens to and obeys what the child SAYS, while the former listens to and responds to what the child is DEMONSTRATES or MANIFESTS, listens at a level deeper that the obvious denotations of words.

So for instance when my daughter SAYS, "I don't want to learn how to read," I know what she means is, "I don't want to sit down and listen to boring monologues about the sounds each letter makes." When she pesters me as I'm cooking dinner to tell her what letters all her friends' names start with, she's MANIFESTING the desire to learn to read in an active, applied manner.

Also, for math, what about origami? We have a great book that explains both the geometry and the actual folding behind lots of interesting shapes. Our book is for grown-ups but there has got to be a kid's equivalent out there.

elsie deluxe said...

Amy, that's a brilliant distinction to make, and one that really clarifies what I'm trying to say. Thanks.

As for origami, we've done it, and I agree, it can be quite valuable in a lot of academic domains. Lots of things we do are mathy, but they don't take the place of learning about specific problem-solving opportunities and techniques. There is a kind of canon of math that elementary kids need to be able to do high school math, and for that I need a curriculum.

shaun said...

You are so clear and matter-of-fact in explaining these things -- makes me want to close down my blog and just point to yours! :)

You wrote:
I've also observed plenty of school-going children who are calling the shots, and whose parents are falling all over themselves to comply with the child's latest demand. This is just not a feature of child-led learning. It's a parenting style, although I hesitate to call it parenting at all.

Yes, exactly! We have good school-going friends whose children totally control the family, and in our co-op I get to see so many different styles of homeschooling, from a kid whose free "self-expression" has developed into general disrespect for everyone, to families where the children are meek and mild as you can imagine.

I think the thing about "child-led" is that the child leads herself, within parameters set by the parents. The child isn't the leader of the family. I'm sure some people who describe their style as "child-led" learning would have a much broader set of parameters than we do!

On the other hand, our kids have parents who tend to do things in untraditional ways, and it's often worked well for us. I have a pretty broad definition of "practical" and "useful."
I am a big proponent of encouraging kids to experiment with doing what they want *whole-heartedly,* because that's where both joy *and* a decent living can usually be found, someday.

elsie deluxe said...

Shaun, please. I find your blog to be incredibly inspiring. I love to read about what you're doing with your girls.

But thanks for the compliment, nonetheless.

shaun said...

Ooh, I have a very unfortunate typo. I said I get to see lots of styles of homeschooling, but what I meant to say was that I see lots of style of homeschooling *families*, which makes a lot more sense in the context of saying that letting children take over the family is not a homeschooling style but a parenting style. Whoops!

elsie deluxe said...

Shaun, I think your intent came across, even thought it's not strictly what you wrote. At least, I understood it that way.

Anonymous said...

I do admit that I framed the part about parents overly deferring to their children only in terms of homeschooling, to which of course that "parenting" style is not limited! I have merely noticed it among that group in particular. No offense meant!

I also think I framed my question about children only doing what they want because the one unschooling family I know (at the time that I was around them after they chose unschooling) really chose to do little "academic" learning at all. I think they were giving their son a break from the pressures he had experienced in school.

So, it is refreshing to hear what you do with your sons. I think I have a fairly good idea of how people use curriculum-based homeschooling, but I really had no idea how child-led learning works. I realized later that my questions really reveal my bias/perspective in their very construction and assumptions. So again, forgive me if I sounded judgmental. That was not my intention.

I appreciate Tara's description of the opposite, where the parents dictate tyranically. And the way Shaun described it as the child leading within parental parameters. That all makes complete sense.

elsie deluxe said...

anthromama, I don't think you sounded judgmental, and if you offended anyone, it certainly wasn't me. I really appreciate your questions, because you seem genuinely curious.

Casey said...

You describe the balance so well. A friend of mine often says that she's "unschooling but not unparenting," which I think sums it up nicely. Giving children autonomy doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, although I'm sure my kids would like to try it that way!