Thursday, January 5, 2012

Homeschool Snapshot

In a sort of continuation of my last post, I am still mulling over various aspects of my homeschool techniques, and the criticisms that are directed at me for them. One difficulty of Unschooling is that, particularly with younger learners, there is very little concrete evidence that learning is actually occurring. By "concrete", I am speaking of something that one can hold and read, that can be seen and filed away, that represents tidy, direct evidence that certain (specific) skills have been mastered.

This is a real problem for me, because I am expected to deliver concrete evidence that I am doing my job well. One way that I have addressed this issue is through yearly standardized testing, but that's not enough. I also try to collect art work and examples of writing, to file away in a portfolio of sorts. It can be hard in the chaos of normal life, but I do hope to get better at it. Still however, the incidental byproducts of our adventurous unschooling existence are seldom tidy little examples of a narrow definition of learning, that I can collect and file away for later scrutiny.

One suggestion that has been made to me very earnestly is that I carry a notebook with me, and every time something of an "educational" nature occurs with one of the boys, I am to note it down. This will enable me to show some sort of record of learning, to keep track of the boys' interests and curiosities, and make it possible for me to test them later on things we have covered.

This sounds very reasonable unless you've lived the unschooling lifestyle. Are there any unschoolers reading this? Am I right? I'm not sure. I know, for me, the thought of carrying a notebook everywhere with me and keeping track of every "learning" moment throughout the day sounds like a gargantuan task. I have a hard enough time meeting everyone's constant needs, without trying continually to put things into words and take notes. Not to mention, much of their learning happens independently. And ultimately, I don't think this task has any value for increasing the efficacy of their education. It's value lies solely in reassuring detractors. Is such a huge effort, then, worth the sacrifices it would entail?

When presented with this idea, I thought of a recent incident of "learning" (they're really learning all the time, not just when the topic is "school"-related) that occurred just a few days ago. We were visiting Charlottesville, Va as a family. Billy was combining work with pleasure, and he was busy for several hours recording while I entertained the three boys. I had walked with them to a nearby playground.

In addition to fun climbing equipment and swings, the playground was abundantly equipped with spinning devices. There was a spinning "Nest" which the boys had no end of fun in, twisty poles, and several "spinner bowls", like these:

The bowls are set into the ground at an angle. Littleman sat down into one, and looked a little bemused.
"How do I make it go?", he asked me.
"You have to use gravity and your own weight to make it spin.", I replied. "Lean forward."
He did, and the shift in weight immediately caused the cup to spin him 180 degrees so that the greatest mass was on the downhill side.
"Good", I said, "now lean back."
Which of course resulted in another 180 degree spin back to where he'd started.
He grinned.
"Now just keep doing that, in rhythm, until you get spinning really well.", I told him.
"Why does that work?", he asked me.

This then, was one of those "teachable moments" when I find myself doing my best to distill a fairly complicated answer into something that will satisfy Littleman while still accurately explaining the concepts at hand. Funny how such a deceptively simple question can really be tough to explain. So I launched into a brief description of rotation, momentum and centrifugal force. . to the best of my ability, because my understanding is admittedly hazy and I did not have my laptop handy for quick research.

Littleman experimented with shifting his weight, spinning, trying different rhythms and trying to speed up or slow down. Those bowls get going very fast! It was perfect for experimenting with rotational physics. Even though my explanation was imperfect, it was enough to plant seeds of knowledge in Littleman's head that he will be able to build on very well. That, combined with the very concrete knowledge of what these forces feel like, will make it easier for him to fully understand when the subject is visited again.

While all this is going on however, I am monitoring Babyman's activities all over the playground, and simultaneously eavesdropping on the conversation that the Pirate is having with a man that we don't know. I am in an unfamiliar place, trying to remain aware of our surroundings. I'm tired and my brain is sluggish from an 8 hour drive the previous day and a persistent head cold. Before I can finish, I am interrupted by Babyman who needs me to push him on the swings. Then the Pirate wants to swing. Then Littleman and Babyman start fighting over the Nest. Next Littleman is introducing me to his new friend. . .

I have trouble imagining myself, with all the other things demanding my attention, simultaneously taking notes in my mind as the conversation unfolded, and then stopping everything to locate my notebook and write my notes down. Then, multiply that by the many, many times that such moments occur throughout the day. This assumes that I even recognize these moments when they occur. . . learning is so seamlessly integrated into our lives that I'm usually not pigeonholing our experiences into "school" and "not school". It would require that I view all my interactions with my children through this lens of "education". I think the ramifications for the kids and me would be far-reaching and mostly negative.

Then again, maybe I am the one being negative. I just don't know.


S said...

Unschoolers here, as you know :)

I should be grateful every day that no one makes me justify our choices. It sounds like a real PITA.

To answer your question, no I could not write everything down as it happened. As it is, I can barely keep a blog running with our weekly accomplishments, or post once a day to FB with a question or interesting video/article that we found. So I don't think you are being unreasonable there. If you had one child, perhaps that would be a more attainable goal.

I won't wax on about my views on unschooling as you probably already know them. If you want to talk about it sometime, I'm always around. I don't get questioned on our approach very often, but the only thing I say these days about it is that my definition of a productive adult is not the same as most. To me a person who is happy, compassionate, curious, etc. are the qualities that make one a good adult. I have a hard enough time doing these things myself, let alone helping my kids learn them. If that is all they get out of the childhood then I will consider myself very accomplished indeed! They have the rest of their lives to learn the rest.

Grace said...

Looking forward to talking to you tomorrow evening.... sounds like a lot going on with you....
There is no way you could carry a notebook around and document life and learning and truly I can't imagine it would make a difference in the quality of education the boys receive.