Layers of learning

What is Learning? Image by Denise Krebs

In your thirties and forties, the discovery of education as this fascinating study of the world as it is, was, and might be—the inter-relatedness of all subject matter from arts to science to math to music to language to history is intoxicating, liberating, deeply satisfying.

By your mid-thirties, your brain “gets it” about history—so THIS is what time is, so THIS is how it goes by, so THIS is why learning from history matters. You can recall a decade or more of personal lived experience, and you can imagine a decade of more into the future. Centuries now mean something to you.

Suddenly other eras and peoples are real to you in a way that eluded you at 10, 16, and even 20.

The educational renaissance that home education facilitates for parents is spell-binding. You want your children making all those connections you are now effortlessly making. You assume that it was school that prevented you from having these insights and understandings, or that somehow you didn’t study hard enough in college, or perhaps you just didn’t care enough. You are determined: your children will see it differently. They will get the education you didn’t get and will be better for it.

So you begin. The joy of study seizes you. Your kids are curious little beings, and so are energized by your enthusiasm. They will read about art or listen to stories of how math is found in music theory. They will go along with the reading of history texts (especially lovely narrative ones that are designed for your homeschooled children).

Yet that sheer thrill of connected understanding that you’ve got eludes them. They aren’t as excited about reading and writing about history day after day, filling a notebook. They don’t like chapter-by-chapter written narrations of literature, or the quiet work of outlining a century in history. You imagine that you’d have been so happy doing this work, if only some teacher had taught you this way when you were eleven or thirteen…from your wise perch of 38 years old.

And yet…would you have liked it?

An educational model that is reading and writing centric suggests a certain level of maturity (a grasping of the abstract) not yet available to children and most young teens. What we want in the early years isn’t mere recitation of facts either (as though learning facts is the requisite underpinning of all that reading and writing later).

Learning comes in layers and continues over a lifespan (read: beyond 18 years). Learning reflects maturity levels (the capacity for understanding distances in time and space, for making connections that take decades to form, for sustaining one’s attention after one’s energy level dissipates or is distracted) and the quality of the information accessible to the student (experts, materials, practicum).

In the early years, our job isn’t to ensure that kids are mastering information (facts). Our job is to ensure that according to the child’s maturity level, we are introducing (as Charlotte Mason would call it): “a feast of ideas.” No one masters a feast. A feast implies good-tasting, ample variety of foods available to the eater—to be eaten according to one’s appetites.

Variety, deliciousness, and opportunity are key.

In education, we want an ample variety of educational styles, combined with a wide variety of quality ideas (information, literature, tools by which we measure the universe, language, “how-to” exploration, and personal varied experiences). We want ease of access to materials, experiences, and information. We want that material to be tasty—delightful or captivating.

Your job isn’t to ensure mastery, nor is it to require children to act like mini-grown-ups with neatly filled timelines and notebooks of information narrated and transcribed. This is not education. It’s school.

What we want instead is the opportunity for our children to become so captivated by the world in all its facets, they eagerly examine bits and pieces of it with whole -hearts.

Let me rephrase that: exposure to bits and pieces of information that are stirring or memorable are superior experiences in education than mastery of facts perceived to be tedious and irrelevant.

Even the items that require mastery for the “next level” of success must be adapted to the temperament of children—must be made meaningful to them (not necessarily to you).

For instance, reading is not meant to be a tedious excursion into ho hum readers or endlessly trying phonics work (particularly after a child has “caught on” and is reading—why finish the phonics manual?). Mathematics should not be the unending drill of recitation long after the student has come to understand the principles of calculation. Varieties of opportunities to use the skills (reading great books, signs, scripts, texts; baking, quilting, building, calculating interesting distances, carpentry) are essential to children.

Move beyond rote learning to application as swiftly as the child makes it possible. How do you calculate really big numbers (like the distance to Saturn) after you learn how to add single digits? How can a child read a bit of Shakespeare (even a line or two) after learning to read a reader?

Get the child into the vision of what the learning will do for him or her. THAT’S the missing piece from your childhood education, much more than the systematic study of history or writing or math drill. You’ve created the meaning for yourself now in your 30s and 40s naturally, by virtue of time and exposure to the big world around you. Your children must rely on you to make those connections for them, to the degree that it’s possible for children.

We are supposed to expose our children to the wider world, but we can’t hope that they will appreciate the significance of that world until they, like us, get a few decades under their belts. They may find the stories of historical battles intriguing, but most kids can’t even believe the 1970s actually happened, let alone the Battle of Hastings. Wars and insurrections are in the category of “fabulous fiction” for kids, despite being “true.”

Circle back through the subject areas over the course of a child’s lifetime, with greater and greater affection and rigor. You will see growth. You will see appetite and curiosity—some that you didn’t foster at all, but that emerged through the interconnectedness of ideas as they bumped into each other in your home and beyond.

Avoid applying the “I wish I had learned this way” principle to your homeschool, which often is more a reflection of how you wish you could learn now than then. Focus, instead, on your children—what causes their faces to light and their newly-evoked questions to drain you? If they are asking, asking, asking—you’re doing something right!

It’s tempting to validate our homeschools through requiring our kids to complete a course of study that appeals to us now. Use your powers of imagination to think back to your child-self. What did you love? Which teachers inspired you? What hooked your fascination? Use those memories to guide you more than your educational re-birth now.

Trust that each revisiting of a subject area will take your children deeper, and then by 35 or 40, they will have the same level of appreciation for learning and history that you now have. In fact, they will have gotten there sooner, is my bet.

Cross-posted on facebook.

4 Responses to “Layers of learning”

  1. kim says:

    Thank you. I really needed to hear that. You are such a blessing.

  2. Melissa says:

    So timely for me. Thank you.

  3. Good insights on layers of learning and the importance of active learning. I think these are some of the reasons why we are seeing more creative usage of internat and distance learning resources as supplements rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. Combining the best aspects of homeschooling with the benefits of ‘Master Teachers’ to stimulate that “joy of study”. Teachers who love their subjects can excite a student’s interest rather than overwhelm them … as you note, they will have the rest of their lives to move toward “mastery”; education is preparation for life, not preparation for the SAT test.

  4. Thomas says:

    that could become a true story of a moderate student or a library employee in future