Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Our Interest-Led Learning Experiment

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
- William Butler Yeats 

This post has been brewing in my cacophonous brain for a while, and I'm not sure why I've procrastinated spewing it out. (Ew. Brewing and spewing.) Maybe because I'm afraid it will be too long. Maybe because I'm afraid of what some of y'all will think. Yes, I have issues.

So way back at the beginning of April, we began an experiment in interest-led learning here at our house. We put away all curriculum and I stopped making daily to-do lists for the kids (except chores). I was tired of some of the repetitious struggles we had been having for so long over learning. Occasionally I allude to them here, but not often. In short, one of my kiddos has some personality traits/learning differences that can make homeschooling ... an extra challenge. Add to that my tendency to dream big and take setbacks personally, and something needed to change.

I told the kids that for that month, they were in charge of their own learning. I wasn't going to require anything of them. (Go ahead. Gasp in horror. I'll be right here when you're done.) I corresponded a bit with Jena, whose son wrote that very interesting post a while back from his perspective as a U. Chicago student on full scholarship. I needed to talk to someone who'd done this and had a success story to show for it, to reassure me that interest-led learning could be a viable option, even just for a month. Jena was so helpful, even on days when I'd email her like a panic-stricken floozy because one of the kids had done little but play on the Wii all day, or so it seemed.

What I did still require, and in fact required more of: household work. Before any computer games happened, they each needed to have a clean whiteboard (where I wrote their daily chores). I encountered surprisingly little resistance. Also, we still had a daily read-aloud session -- our biggest tackle being Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers.

At the end of April, we reevaluated. I had a sitdown with my oldest and we discussed pros and cons. We both felt like our relationship had been smoother, with less tension over what he perceived as "school" (which I resented, knowing how little like real "school" our lifestyle actually was!). He liked having a greater degree of freedom (although frankly, we'd never been anything close to school-at-homers). I liked that he'd read more, of his own volition. I liked that he took more initiative to work on his drawing.

I told him I did miss doing some things together and wasn't sure where I fit in to his lifestyle of learning. He accepted that, and thought we could add a few things back in, like our bird study.

Since then, our homeschool style has continued to evolve. I read and was inspired by The Call to Brilliance. At a friend's recommendation, I also ordered (for free, from here), a book called Homeschooling and Loving It! This book inspired me to sit down and make a list of my OWN goals -- she suggests 100 Life Goals; I'm up to about 20. After all, if we want dedicated lifelong learners, guess what we need to be ourselves???

Based on that exercise, I talked with Ian about setting some goals of his own. Together, we came up with a reading goal called Ten By Ten. He plans to finish ten books from this list of age-appropriate classics by his tenth birthday at the end of July. And he has a list to track his progress -- which HE is responsible for filling in.

Just this week, we've been working on everyone (well, except Caroline, who's very self-directed and very four years old) having daily goals based on weekly goals. Ian's goals for this week are to finish Charlotte's Web, to make himself a pair of bandana pants with my help, to finish his music belt loop for Cub Scouts, to work on his writing belt loop by writing a decent-length letter, and to learn to use the weed whacker so he can expand the services of his budding lawn care business. Eliza planned to ride her bike to the park and back -- a new distance for her -- and to read a book all the way through on her own. And I'm plugging away on my own goals.

Still, we tinker with what really works for us. Yesterday went rather disappointingly by my standards. Goals went unmet; time was wasted. I prayed Eeyore-like prayers, as is my wont. (But hey, I finished The Help! Great book!) Daddy donned his shining armor at the dinner table to discuss priorities with the children. He showed them the "Big Rocks" demonstration, and apparently lightbulbs switched on. Today, Eliza's been asking me all day, "Am I taking care of my Big Rocks?"  Um, making banana bread? I'd call that a yes!

In my more clear-eyed moments, I can see that this life we've chosen for ourselves will *always* be a work in progress. Our goals of doing more inspiring than requiring, of encouraging self-directed and passionate learning, of facilitating their education rather than handing it to them in a wrapped package, of teaching them to set goals and make plans to reach them -- there is no set curriculum, no clear road map for how to carry these out. What works one month or year may not work the next, what worked for each child may not fly with the others. Tides ebb and flow, even in learning.  So we're working on staying true to our vision and letting the path we take to get there become a journey of faith.

And I should edit this, but my computer time is up. Time to go tackle some Big Rocks. :-)


Jessica said...

Hannah, I just read an article about a teaching style in Higher Education that is somewhat related to your new approach ( When professor took away grading, helping the students complete the assignments in a way that suited their style, they accomplished much more. You might find the article helpful and encouraging :)

cjoy said...

Nothing but admiration from me on this venture! I'm gonna live vicariously through you since I'm nowhere close to figuring out how to do that.

And someone gave me Homeschooling and Loving It! a while back (she got several free) - which I pulled out this week...I have only perused it in the past, but want to dig for the gold now, so my efforts have begun.

Tim said...

Jessica, you read the same Tomorrow's Professor email that I do, and I was thinking of the same thing. Another idea was student peer-review, but I'm not sure what that would look like in a home-school environment. Peer teaching/reviewing is an interesting idea that might work with kids.

Jena said...

I love what you said here: Our goals of doing more inspiring than requiring, of encouraging self-directed and passionate learning, of facilitating their education rather than handing it to them in a wrapped package, of teaching them to set goals and make plans to reach them...

Awesome! Very well said. And you are right, it ebbs and flows. This can be a difficult way to homeschool because you have to be very in tune with your kids and their evolving interests. Flexible, fluid, ready to jump on a teachable moment when you can, all make for quite an adventure!

And it is so worth it! Simply having a positive, co-learning relationship with your child can make all the difference when they become teenagers.

Just keep giving yourself that pep talk. :)

Kate young said...

I would suggest you take a look at A Thomas Jefferson Education -- you might find that you are steering your family toward learning the same way the founding fathers did....

lnatt said...

Hey, if you start to feel unproductive or foolish, you can just come on over here, LOL - because this is pretty much how we live all the time, and don't even have chore lists or whiteboards either :) Of course, your oldest is older than my oldest (is he 10 and E is 8?), so who knows what our HSing may look like in 2 years.

As of this week, we are mainly playing A LOT of chess (River is freaking us out with his burgeoning skills, for a 6yo), E is writing a mystery, there have been quite a few discussions about square roots popping up, and just the usual reading, time outdoors, drawing, etc.

It may take some time to adjust and see all the learning that IS happening, all around you guys, all the time. I still have freakouts when I hear about this fancy curriculum or that one, but then I just have to step back and remember my goals. I remind myself that I am teaching my kids to learn, and to love learning, and to be curious and engaged, and by that definition, we are succeeding in every way :)

Tim said...

IKD and I had the best discussion of fractions and percentages the other day after throwing the football. "You just made 39 catches out of 50 throws, how many catches would you expect to make if we did 100 throws? 200 throws?" Usually he hates math, especially fractions, but not this time.
Then we went on to a discussion (he wants to be a spy, or a scientist) of letter frequencies in a coded message and how you can tell which kind of code it is by the letter frequencies. Pretty advanced concept that he jumped right on because it was spycraft. Never would have had the discussion from a "unit" on fractions. I promise.